Chapter 43: The Forlorn and the Forgotten

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“That… is all I have to report,” General Leonid said.

Councillor Gerhardt hesitated for a moment. He dreaded the answer to his question, but… it had to be heard.

“And what of General Katherine?”

“I could not find her,” General Leonid said. “Considering the situation, the most likely situation is that…”

His voice trailed off.

No.

No. This couldn’t be happening.

“The rebels… how did they…?”

“It was as I have said,” Leonid said. “It was a surprise attack. Perhaps there was still something that could have been done, but… they shattered us. The lines broke in instants, and from there, it was all over except the slaughter.”

“But how could they get behind the wall in the first place?”

“I do not know,” Leonid said, shaking his head slightly. “I suspect the rebels may have built a secret passage into the inner city. From what little I know of the rebel leader, I would not doubt that he would do something like that.”

“Did you find any evidence of anything like that?”

“No. But our time was otherwise preoccupied. All the time we were there, we were preparing for battle, or trying to maintain control of the battle itself. There was no time to search for any such thing.”

Gerhardt shook his head. “To think they could…”

Leonid lowered his head and said nothing.

Gerhardt looked around. He would have expected one of the other Councillors to have interjected by now. But… there was nothing but silence.

And… Mia, especially. He would have expected her to erupt in rage. But she merely sat, her arms resting limply on the arms of her chair, her head tilted upwards, her jaw hanging open, a blank expression of shock on her face.

Perhaps he shouldn’t have been surprised. Of course Mia wouldn’t be able to believe it.

“Councillor Gerhardt, if I may?” Leonid asked.

“Of course, General Leonid,” Gerhardt nodded. “Speak.”

“I… understand this may seem unthinkable to many of you,” Leonid said. “But I will tell you what I believe, as clearly as I can. We cannot win this war.”

Gerhardt… would have liked to be able to consider himself shocked by that. But he had been coming to the same conclusion himself. This merely confirmed his worst fears.

“Yes… we cannot win this war. Not anymore. Too much of our power was shattered at Redgate. If we attack again, we will be crushed. If we stay here and defend, we may be able to give them a fight. But nevertheless, we would lose. And all we would be doing would be needlessly sacrificing the lives of hundreds of demons.

“To you, I understand the rebels seem like monsters. But… I have seen them fight. I have seen how they act in battle. Against us, they have attacked without fear or hesitation, throwing away their lives against a wall of steel for the sake of their leaders. I cannot say they were “disciplined”, as such, but… it was as if they had no fear. I know those kinds of men, Councillors. I know what motivates people to fight without regard for their lives, without fear of death or pain or injury. It is an ideal. I do not know what these rebels are pursuing, nor can I know for certain if they are truly pursuing it or if their leader is merely deceiving the common people into believing so. But I know one thing – at the very least, those soldiers fully and truly believe that they are fighting for something just.

“I do not deny that it is possible the rebel leader simply manipulated them into thinking so. But to so effectively control such an amount of men… to have them fight so surely, so certainly, so confidently…  could any amount of simple propaganda truly achieve that? I do not know, and I cannot know – we know too little of the rebels to say anything for certain. But I know one thing. Belief, true belief, is a hard thing to instill in a man. And I do not believe it can be done by simple lies and trickery. Whatever goal the rebel leader tells his men they are striving for, whatever ideal he claims to embody, there is at least a grain of truth in his words… or at the very least, he says something the people cannot deny.

“What I am trying to say is this: the war is lost, yes. Trying to fight on at this point would mean certain doom. But the very real possibility has presented itself that the rebels are not the heartless monsters we have always imagined them as. We still have a chance… a chance for all of this to be resolved without more needless bloodshed. I do not ask of you to accept anything, Councillors, nor do I ask you to submit or surrender. I merely ask one thing of you – talk. I can’t say for certain how it could be done, but… arrange a meeting. Listen to the rebels. Perhaps they will tell you something you yourselves have never realized… and in any case, it is your only choice. I cannot say anything for sure, and I cannot be certain that the rebels would accept anything less than a complete victory… but the possibility exists. And as long as there is a chance, is it not our duty to do anything in our power to save the lives of as many as possible?

“I will say it again… I do not ask you to make any commitments, not now. Not before you know who you are dealing with. But what I do ask of you is to keep an open mind, and to at least try. To at least try to end all this bloodshed peacefully. In any case… that’s the only way you’ll be able to preserve your power at this point.”

Silence.

“Then… you are saying we should try to negotiate with the rebels?” Gerhardt asked.

“Yes,” Leonid replied. “I understand it may seem like an unthinkable thing to do. But it is your only option.”

Gerhardt shook his head. “Perhaps… perhaps you are right. Perhaps we cannot win this war, not anymore. Perhaps that would be the only way to end it without further bloodshed. But…” He sighed. “We cannot. We have led demonkind through its greatest struggles, and we have led it to its greatest joys. We have been its rulers ever since the old king was deposed, ever since they have been freed. We cannot compromise. Not now.”

“I understand, Gerhardt,” Leonid said. “You have always been proud of the Council, and proud to be part of it. I understand that what I am asking you to do is to forget all about that pride. But please, I beg of you – at least consider it. At this stage… it is the only option.”

“He… isn’t wrong,” Councillor Adrien said. “We can’t win at this point. At this point… what better choice is there? To die for nothing? And besides, he’s right – we don’t know anything about the rebels. Can we really just assume they’re as evil as we’ve always believed? Perhaps it would be better to give them a chance.”

“Kkh… DAMN YOU ALL!” Mia yelled. “What is wrong with you?! These rebels, they… they never should have been able to do something like this in the first place! We are greater than them! We had more men, better men, more territory, more preparation, better tactics… what happened?! Answer me, Leonid – what happened?! Why was our army destroyed by a writhing mass of worms?! Why is General Katherine dead?! What did you do, General Leonid?!”

“What I have done is lead to the best of my ability. Yes, I have failed to foresee that the rebels would do something like this. Yes, I have failed to perform according to your expectations. But you will not accuse me of having created this situation intentionally, Mia.”

Truly now, General? Come now. It’s no secret you’ve never approved of our attacks on Verta. It’s no secret that the lives of a few demons are worth more to your soft little heart than the dreams of all of us. So why wouldn’t you do something like this? Cripple our army, let the rebels get what they want, and then try to negotiate with them… sounds just like you, doesn’t it? After all, it’d get you everything your pathetic little mind desires. You’d get to solve this without killing anyone, everyone would get their ways… oh, and most importantly, we wouldn’t be able to keep our attacks up, even if we wanted to. Leonid… this is what you planned from the start, isn’t it?!”

“That’s enough, Mia!” Gerhardt said. “I know, and I understand, that Leonid has often had misgivings about the way we rule our people. But what sort of rulers would we be if we treated dissent as treason? Whatever his misgivings, whatever his dissatisfactions, he has served us loyally for centuries, and if anyone is at fault here, it is us for never having listened to him. We have ignored him for all this time, we have denied him the chance to change anything no matter how faithfully he served us… and nevertheless, he continued to serve. And you would speak of him like that?!”

“If I may,” Councillor Yulia said softly, shutting the rest of the Councillors up in an instant. “There is still always our last resort. We can still use that.”

That?

No, she couldn’t mean…

“Do you mean…” Gerhardt asked, looking at her with wide eyes.

“Yes,” Yulia said. “It would take a great toll on us. It would take a great toll on demonkind. But it could work. From the start, that option has been our last resort… and now, more than anything, we have been pushed to the breaking point. When would be a better time to use it?”

“We cannot,” Gerhardt said, shaking his head. “We have worked hard to get to this point. To do that now would be… it would be spitting in the face of everything we’ve ever done. It would be stepping over everything we’ve ever stood for just for the sake of survival. We cannot do that.”

“Can we not?” Yulia asked. “After all, surely you aren’t foolish enough to think that if we do nothing, he’ll just sit there and wait. No matter what we do, one day, that will happen anyway… so why not at least try and turn it to our benefit? No, to the benefit of demonkind?”

“Yes… of course, Yulia,” Mia suddenly said, a wide grin on her face. “Of course. That is how we can defeat the rebels. Yes… go on. You have my support.”

As for Gerhardt, he was… unsure.

The benefit of demonkind

Yulia had added that last bit on almost as an afterthought. Really, it didn’t take much to see she was just thinking about the good of the Council themselves. And in that case, it would be unthinkable to use that. It would make them far worse monsters than the rebels had ever been.

And yet… was she not right? If the rebels took over, it would not be merely the Council who would suffer. All of demonkind would have to pay the price. Perhaps Leonid was right… perhaps the rebels were not as evil as they had always thought. But… could they truly take that chance? Could they simply hope that the rebels would not be cruel leaders while they abandoned all of demonkind to them? Could they take the risk that, if they were wrong, demonkind would live under tyranny for hundreds, perhaps even thousands of years?

They could not. Perhaps Leonid had been right all the time. Perhaps… perhaps they weren’t the best rulers for the demons. But neither could they simply abandon them to the rule of someone they could not know anything about – of someone who could rule however they wanted, with not a thing to stop them.

And in that case, it didn’t matter how much Gerhardt’s conscience revolted against it. It didn’t matter that it could end up claiming the lives of hundreds more demons.

It really was the only choice, wasn’t it…?

Gerhardt didn’t want to support it. But Adrien, at least, and quite possibly Daniel would go against it; of that there was no doubt. And… as he’d just realized, it was the only choice left. And that meant that if no one else would vote for it, he had to.

“I… see what you are saying,” Gerhardt said. “Very well, Councillor Yulia. We will do as you suggest. In this situation… it truly is the only choice.”

Mia smiled, a cruel, unsettling grin. “Yes… you’re quite right. I’ll go get it done, then, hm?”

General Leonid stood, alone, outside the doors to the Council Chamber.

He wasn’t sure what had just been decided. Whatever this “last resort” was, whatever Yulia had planned, whatever had made Mia so excited… he didn’t know what it was. It must have been something the Council had always kept solely to themselves, something so secret that not even their most trusted subordinates had been allowed to know about it. At least… he was sure that was how it was supposed to be. In reality… he didn’t know. He wouldn’t be surprised if Councillor Ihab had told it to someone before his death, but… if he had, the person he’d be most likely to tell was General Katherine. And she was…

No. Never mind that. It didn’t matter what the Council had just decided.

Actually, it did. Of course it did. The way they’d been talking about it, it sounded like it was something critical – something that could beat the rebels, but something that they would pay a heavy price for using. If that was the case, Leonid felt it was likely the price wouldn’t only be paid by the Council themselves. It was entirely possible that… it was likely that whatever the Council was planning, ordinary demons would be the ones to pay the price. How could something like that not matter? Of course it mattered. Of course it was important.

But he couldn’t change it. So there was no point in thinking about it. Not now.

What he did know was that the Council had decided not to negotiate. He’d presented his plan to them, given them his idea for how to avoid any further unnecessary bloodshed, told them why it was the only way they could maintain at least some power… he’d tried his best. But at the end, it had all been for nothing. Despite everything he’d said, the Council had refused. Refused to set aside their pride, refused to negotiate with the people they still saw as simple ungrateful rebels… refused to stop this madness.

And the ones to pay for that would not only be the Council themselves. His men would pay just as great a toll.

If he did as they asked once more… if he made his last stand as they’d asked of him after coming to that conclusion, if he delayed the rebels as long as possible until the Council could bring whatever new tactic or weapon or whatever it was planning to unleash to bear… then perhaps he would be able to do his duty. Perhaps he would be able to stop the rebels, at least for enough time for the Council to do whatever they were planning. Perhaps he would still be able to save the Council.

But it would cost him the lives of his men… and he would have to send each and every one of them off to die, knowing full well that that would be what he was doing.

After all, there would be no victory here. The only thing they’d be able to do was buy time – just keep stalling until the Council did whatever it was planning to do.

Which, he supposed, was exactly what the rebels had done back in Redgate.

But back then… he’d seen how the rebels fought. To them, the war had been far from over. They hadn’t been tired of the fighting, hadn’t been exhausted and worn out as he’d have expected them to be. They had been fighting to cast the Council out of what they saw as theirs – to defeat the people whom they saw as the ones behind all their miseries. To them, there had still been every chance to turn everything around.

His men… were different. Perhaps he only had his own cynicism to blame for it, but his men believed just as much as he did that the end was nigh. To them, it was all over now. And any further battles would simply be a bloodbath.

The Council’s dream was… glorious, yes. And those who fought for it believed in it, truly believed in it. After all, the Council’s army was made of volunteers – a person would have to believe in the dream to join. But all beliefs had their limits. And now… after all this, after the Council had thrown away the lives of its own people again and again, after they refused, no matter what he – or anyone – said, to just listen for a moment… his men didn’t want to fight. Not anymore. And, quite frankly… neither did he.

He’d never outright disobeyed the Council before. The thought had simply… never crossed his mind. At the end of the day, he was simply a General, and they were the Councillors. No matter how much he disliked them, he obeyed their orders.

But now… now, it was clear that their control was slipping. Even if, somehow, they miraculously defeated the rebels, they would never again be what they once had been. The legendary Council that had liberated the demons and been their wise and just rulers for centuries had already fallen. Whatever happened to the Council sitting in the Chamber now was merely an afterthought. The men and women who sat there now were but a shadow of their former selves – a shadow that had lost sight of any goal but defeating the rebels.

In that case… Leonid was unable to do anything for the people who were now left without true leaders. But at the very least, if the Council would not, it was his duty to lead those he could.

He didn’t know what the Council’s last, desperate plan was. But he wasn’t interested in that. What he knew was that he was not going to fight the battle the Council wanted him to fight. And nor was he going to make any of his men throw their lives away doing the same.

If his men still wanted to stand by the Council… then he would not begrudge them that. But as for any who did not…

He wasn’t going to force anyone to throw away their lives on a foolish cause like this. Least of all people like his men, people who had loyally served the Council for years and never received anything in return, never obtained the dream they’d been promised. They deserved better. Better than being made to hold Merdrun’s walls, knowing all the while that they had simply been placed there to die, to slow the rebels’ advance by a few precious minutes.

Was he a traitor for thinking that way? Perhaps. But better a traitor than a murderer.

And as for him himself… he was tired of this. If his men still wanted to fight, then… he wouldn’t begrudge them. But…

Maybe I’m throwing away my loyalty to my subordinates. But… I’ve already thrown away my loyalty to the Council. And as things stand…

He would not join them. Not anymore.

“It’ll take a while, of course,” Alexander said. “But that just means we need to move now. The more time we give them, the more of a chance they’ll get to recover. And even if we managed to cripple them, they won’t stay crippled forever. We need to move as fast as we can.”

“Hmm,” Azal muttered, looking at the map. “Melthar, would you be able to assist us with this?”

The Great Power shrugged. “As I’ve said, once I’ve set up my teleportation, it’s not that difficult to expand it to include more things. But that doesn’t mean it’s effortless, and I do have a limit. Moving an entire army would be… well, not possible, really. I could try moving it a little at a time, but even then, I’d probably run out of energy before I got all of them there. And if we moved only a fraction of your forces to the walls of Merdrun, the Council would probably be able to take them, even like this.”

Azal glanced at him. “And could you not move them directly into the city itself?”

“That’s not as easy as you’d think,” Melthar said. “Teleporting a large amount of people into anything other than a large, open space behaves… unpredictably, to say the least. I wouldn’t trust myself to do it without getting us all into a huge mess, and we don’t really need that sort of advantage. Better not to take the risk.”

“I see,” Azal sighed. “Very well. Then, how about this? Melthar, you will move as many of my men as you can to a place outside the walls of Merdrun, somewhere nearby but not close enough that the Council will attack. Then, rest for some time and do it again until our entire army is there.”

“Hmm,” Melthar murmured. “Yeah. That… could work, actually. That’s a pretty good way to do it.”

“Faster than just having them all march over there, certainly,” Alexander agreed. “Yes, that seems like a good way to do it. Still slower than we would like, of course, but… certainly faster than anything else we could hope for.”

“In that case, there’s just a few more things to say,” Melthar said. “Unless you have something else to add, Azal?”

“No,” Azal said. “Go on.”

“First off, unfortunately, we still haven’t been able to find Ian. Though, if I were you, Azal, I’d probably stop the search at this point. I get it, he’s still a potential threat, but… we have a far bigger threat looming ahead of us, and that one’s one we can get rid of here and now. We can find Ian later.”

“Yes, you’re right,” Azal nodded. “Very well. We can deal with him later. For now, we must focus all our efforts on destroying the Council.”

“Second,” Melthar said, “I’ve brought Darius back like you’ve told me to. And, well, he told me about the things he’s heard, and… one of them, at least, is, well… worrying.”

“Go on.”

“Well, according to him, there’s been a few rumors flying around. Talking about some sort of ”contingency” the Council supposedly has,” Melthar said. “And… well, I know a bit more than most people, and… alright, you know what? This is important, so I’ll cut out all the vague stuff and tell you as clearly as I can: I’m pretty sure I know what the contingency is. Or at least, I’ve got a good guess.

“And if I’m right… we’ve got a problem on our hands.”

Mia stood at the point she’d been given, grinned, and thrust the dagger into the sand.

It hadn’t been easy, getting here. For a start, she was a demon, and doing what she was doing now had required her to pass through quite a bit of Vertan land unnoticed. But with a hood and a cloak, it had proven, for the most part, rather easy, with only a few bits of trouble. Of course, getting here in the first place had taken quite a bit of time, but… the horse truly was a magnificent animal. One wasted on mortals. Getting one of those had been its own problem, certainly, but it had been an effort well spent.

But here she was. And here was her reward.

A long, long time ago, a barrier had been set up here. But it had been set up in a very, very specific way. A way that ensured the Council would always have a way out – a way that made sure that, if anyone tried to bring the Council down, they could, at the very least, take them down with them. A last resort… that was a rather appropriate name for it, yes. But even if it did mean they’d been pushed to the breaking point, she was still going to delight in unleashing it upon the rebels.

The barrier itself had been made with some of the most powerful and complicated magic… well, ever, really. It had been made by a large group of demon mages who had, by now, all died (not for any nefarious reasons – it just so happened that powerful, skilled, and knowledgeable mages tended to also be quite old). But it had been made with a few specific points marked out as something special. A weak point, a key hole… and one that it would take no magic at all to unlock.

The only “skill” one needed was knowledge.

The dagger struck the stone, the stone that had been buried beneath the sand a long, long time ago, and, with a quick movement, Mia tore it out of the earth.

She turned, smiled, and waited.

It wasn’t long at all before she saw what she’d been expecting to see.

“So, we meet again,” she smiled. “Now, now… don’t you think of trying anything untoward. You know, I can still put it back… and besides, we overthrew you once. We can do it again.”

In front of her, with crossed arms and a smirk on his face, the Archdemon floated atop a column of wind.

She was going to enjoy wiping that smirk off his face. She was going to enjoy seeing his expression when he realized that the demons had chosen new masters by now, that his power was long gone. And more than anything, she couldn’t wait for the moment he realized he had no choice but to serve the Council.

Yes… this time around, everything would be as it should have been from the very-

A hand closed around her throat, and before she could react, she was taken into the air.

“W-what are you…?” she choked, staring at the Archdemon. That fool! Did he not know that if he killed her, the Council would…

“Hmph. I’ve always known this barrier couldn’t hold me forever… but I’d always assumed I’d end up having to break free of it on my own. To be simply freed like this…” The Archdemon smiled. “Well. It seems in some cases, idiots like you can be rather useful.”

“You idiot! The Council will-“

“Ah, the Council. No, don’t worry – I know what they are. My Cult’s been bringing me information ever since you sealed me away here. But I wonder… what could they possibly do to me?”

“The demons… are loyal to them!” Mia yelled, struggling to speak as the Archdemon cut off her supply of air. “You will not be able to take control of them again!”

“Ah… loyalty,” the Archdemon frowned. With a quick motion of his arm, he tossed Mia to the ground, and she gasped for breath, clutching at her throat. “Such an interesting word, isn’t it? One that I think… you rather overestimate.”

“W-what are you talking-“

The Archdemon smiled, and held out a hand, and it felt as if a hammer had fallen on Mia’s mind.

“Hmm… I suppose you’ve never known, have you? You’ve always thought I was just a mage. Just a very, very powerful mage.” The Archdemon held out his arm, and in an instant, a spear appeared in his hand. “Isn’t that right?

“But you were wrong all along. I’m no simple mage, nor am I a mere demon like all of you. I… am something greater than that.” A grin spread across his face. “Have you ever heard of Great Powers?”

Mia tried to think. Great Powers? They were a myth the mortals had. But… why would the Archdemon talk about them now…?

She gasped.

No, wait. That was… that was wrong. Why… why hadn’t her mouth moved?

“That’s right. The three… no, four gods of this world. After all… I’m one of them myself.” He smiled lightly, as if remembering a funny joke. “Well… I suppose now, it really is three.

“And you know something else? My domain… is power.”

The Archdemon held out his hand. And-

No.

No, this isn’t right. This can’t be happening. This isn’t what was supposed to-!

Mia’s legs moved on her own, taking her closer to the king standing before her.

“Come now, Mia,” he smiled. “Let us take back my kingdom.”

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Chapter 42: How Titans Fall

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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.”

Argh…

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.

Now…

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.”

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Chapter 41: God of War

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

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

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

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

Azal was rather proud of it all, really.

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

Well, even Azal was excited about that.

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

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

Good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Azal raised an eyebrow. “Hm. Truly?”

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

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

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

“Men… let us take back what is ours!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Therefore, they needed to do something more decisive.

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

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

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

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

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

That was the instant they started seeing some actual opposition.

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

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

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

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

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

Speed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Azal reached the wall.

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

But there wasn’t time to think about that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, they never got the chance to finish.

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

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

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

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

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

Victory or death.

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

He rushed forth.

Alexander watched it happen.

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

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

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

They were simply facing the wrong way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Council’s army disintegrated.

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

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

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

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

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

That was all the Bloodhorns needed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dammit…! Form up, men!”

General Katherine’s voice was lost amidst the chaos.

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

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

It was like… like…

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

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

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

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

So Leonid was the only one she had left.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She paused for a moment.

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

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

“Who are you?” she demanded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So she had no choice. She had to fight.

Victory was impossible.

Then she’d just have to do the impossible.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She glared at him.

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

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

Abandon her men…?

Abandon the Council…?

Never.

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

And she heard a footstep behind her.

And before she could rise, before she could turn…

Something pierced the back of her neck.

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Chapter 40: Secret Keeper

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“Well, it’s just… call me paranoid, Azal, but I’m wondering something,” Darius said. “This tower… it just got swept out from under its previous ruler’s feet, didn’t it? And it’s not hard to see why. With the way this tower’s laid out, there’s barely any way to even mount an effective defense in here. I mean, first off, even getting any significant amount of men packed into this place would be hard…”

Azal narrowed his eyes. “Your point is?”

“We’re going to be making enemies soon,” Darius said. “Well… one enemy, I guess, but the Council’s a dangerous foe. Don’t you think we shouldn’t use this tower as our headquarters? It’s practically a beacon telling our foes exactly where we’ll be, and it’s not even particularly defensible. Isn’t it a bit stupid to stay here?”

“Nonsense,” Azal said. “This tower is a symbol of power to the people. As long as we are here, we send them a message. The old Baron has been overthrown, and we have taken his place. This tower shows our strength, our dominance – and, most importantly, our intent to rule. Right now, Darius, our entire army – and the entirety of the people technically loyal to us – is a single, disorganized mob. And right now, what is more important than anything else is turning the rest of the people to our side – or at least, making them accept us. If we take over only to flee immediately afterwards, it will hardly send the sort of message we want to send.”

“Uh-huh,” Darius murmured skeptically. “And if we’re attacked? What then? You can’t escape from here – the Baron proved that much. And as I’ve just said, there’s no real way to defend this place either. What do you plan to do about that?”

“The tower may not be defensible, but the walls are,” Azal said. “If an enemy approaches, that is where we will meet them.”

“And if they get past?” Darius asked. “You know you can’t rely completely on them being stopped by the walls. What happened to “plan for the worst”?”

Azal sighed. “Darius… I think you know me well enough by now to answer your own question. The idea of “trust” is a foolish thing – while some sources may be more reliable than others, you can never truly know anything to be true until you find out for yourself. Thus, I do not trust anything. I do not trust people, information, plans… or chances.

“And I certainly do not trust fortresses.”

Azal darted through the alleys of the city that had, until only recently, belonged to him.

He had no doubt that, if he were spotted, he would be shot dead by an archer instantly. After all, while it was possible the Council hadn’t known his identity before – after all, it was entirely possible that they’d simply never received that information – there was no doubt about it now, not when they had the entire city’s population right there in the inner city. Surely, at least one of them would have talked by now, or at least let something slip unintentionally. And since that was true, the Council would know him on sight – the moment they saw him running through the city streets, they’d know him as the rebel leader. And at that point, he would certainly become their first priority.

After all, at this moment, he wasn’t merely the rebel leader. He was the rebel leader, and he was rushing through the city’s streets, all alone, with a destination clearly in mind. He’d abandoned his army and gone off on his own, but it would be clear as day to any observer that he wasn’t simply fleeing. It would be natural for anyone who saw him to assume he was planning something.

It would be a perfectly correct assumption.

But Azal was not concerned. After all, he wouldn’t be spotted.

From the start, that had been the plan. Though, he wasn’t sure it was even right to call it that. Many of the pieces had simply fallen into place on their own without him having to do a thing… but then, he supposed that worked just as well. In any case, the Council would never see him.

First off, the timing was perfect. Since they had paused for a while after the Council had taken over, and waited some time before attacking, the battle was taking place in the middle of the night. That hadn’t been the main intent of the pause – Azal had needed a bit of time to inspect the enemy and place a few finishing touches on the mental image of his plan, and he was sure Alexander needed some time to analyze the defenses too so as to work out an attack plan that wouldn’t result in too many casualties. But while they had been doing that, they’d also been waiting – waiting for the perfect time to attack, for the perfect time for Azal to execute his plan.

Second, there was the matter of Azal’s cloak. From the start, he’d used it as a makeshift symbol of sorts – something easily recognizable and clearly unique, something that immediately marked him as the rebel leader. All the time he’d been with the army, he’d kept it on, making sure that his men never saw him without it. After all, it was what he was known for. It was, just as he’d intended, his symbol – it was his unofficial ceremonial garb as the rebel leader. So he’d kept it on to assure the army that their symbol, their idol, was with them. But as a convenient extra, the robe was also pitch black – and combined with the time, that was something else that helped assist Azal’s efforts. Spotting a single chirean, from far away, in the dead of the night, would be difficult all on its own. Spotting a single chirean in those circumstances, while he was dressed in all black? It would be nigh-impossible.

And third, there was the simple fact that, right now, the Council had rather more pressing matters to worry about. The intent of Alexander’s attack against the walls was to draw the Council’s forces into the defense – to make sure they wouldn’t be prepared to defend against Azal’s gambit. It was a necessary part of the plan. Without that distraction, the Council would simply be able to defeat Azal’s tactic the moment he struck. But, as with the two other things, it was a double strike. Not only would the battle keep the defenders occupied, it would keep their attention just as well – and as long as they were focusing on it, none of them would even think to check the city in the first place. And even if they did… well, considering the other two precautions, he doubted they’d be able to spot him.

Even still, a normal person would’ve felt at least some fear, running through the city like that. Well, perhaps a normal person wouldn’t have realized how much danger they were in in the first place – but if they did, they would feel fear. It wouldn’t matter how perfect their preparations were or how low the chances of them being spotted. As long as that chance existed, no matter how miniscule it was, no normal person would have been able to remain completely calm as they sprinted through those streets.

But… Azal was hardly a normal man. Even he’d realized that some time ago. Was he insane? No, he didn’t think so – not as such. But he knew he thought very differently compared to most people. Even he had to admit that the risk existed. But to him, it didn’t matter in the least. A risk as tiny as the one he was dealing with was a risk that merited no worry, and in any case, if the Council somehow were able to spot him, he would be unable to do anything about it – he would be dead before he even knew anything had happened. So, there was no point in worrying about it. So, he simply didn’t.

The layout of the city was labyrinthine, to say the least. From what Azal knew, the city’s origins actually made it rather fitting that a rebellious movement would start here, of all places. Unlike most (in fact, possibly all other, though Azal wasn’t sure) of Aead’s large cities, its construction had never been directly ordered at any point. He knew from what Alexander had told him that back during the era of the angels, it wasn’t uncommon for large cities to grow out of small settlements, but after the old king had destroyed the angels and taken over, he’d torn down or burned their cities and seized tight control over all building projects in his land. Since then, even once the Council had taken over and relaxed those restrictions somewhat, no new settlements had ever grown particularly large without the current ruler’s explicit support – except, it seemed, the city of Redgate. The history books weren’t quite sure when its building first began, but it was sometime during the second major shift in power – either as the Council’s rebellion was in its later stages, or early during their reign (Azal thought it was probably the latter). At that time, whoever was ruling, neither the Council nor the old king would have had much resources to devote to a small settlement far to the north – and in any case, they would’ve had far more pressing issues to deal with. So, even without any support from the government at the time, and slipping largely beneath everyone’s notice, the city of Redgate grew and grew and grew, attracting more and more demons from the nearby lands and occasionally also convincing travellers that came by to stay. Eventually, it had come to the Council’s notice, but by then, even if the Council had wanted to do something about it, it was far too late. The city had build itself up, and its origins had been written into history.

Even now, the city itself told of its origin. The layout alone made it clear that something was unusual. As Azal had noted, it was labyrinthine, far more so than any other city on Aead he knew about. That was a direct result of its origins. It hadn’t been built up by someone, it had built itself up, without any sort of direction or planning or long-term thinking – a chaotic sprawl of demons, adding on to the settlement as was convenient right at that moment. That was why, now, the entire city’s structure seemed to make no sense whatsoever – because quite frankly, it didn’t.

But the layout wasn’t the only mark the city’s origin had left on history. Even its culture had been shaped by how it had been born, long ago. Azal himself had proved that. This city had always had relatively few ties to the Council, and its inhabitants had always had relatively little love for the higher-ups who’d always considered this land theirs despite never doing anything for it. Granted, they hadn’t hated the Council, not as such – but their indifference was a sort that was, once Azal put his skills to use, easy enough to turn into hate. That, he felt, was a large part of why this rebellion had been as successful as it had. If it had started in a city more loyal to the Council – or, for that matter, in a city in an area more loyal to the Council – it would probably never have gotten off the ground in the first place.

In any case, the city was a maze. It was an impossible mess of twisting streets and alleys and stranger shapes, and no one who didn’t have extensive knowledge of its layout would be able to get through it without getting lost. The inner city was somewhat better – ever since the Council had installed a Baron to lead the city, Amar had tried his best (which, frankly, wasn’t very good) to make sure that at least the most supposedly “distinguished” parts of the city lived up to his standards – but even then, it wasn’t easy to navigate – and navigating the outer city was nigh-impossible without a clear sense of what one was looking for, and difficult even then. The worst parts were where Azal currently was – outside the inner city’s walls, but still relatively close to them. Nearer the outskirts of the city, one started to come across parts of it that had been built later on, and with somewhat more order than the rest – but here, it was simply sheer chaos. There was no rhyme or reason whatsoever to how the buildings around here were positioned, how the streets twisted and turned and ended and began. There really was no other way to describe it – it was a maze.

It was a maze through which Azal dashed as swiftly and surely as a flying crow’s shadow, his course already fully planned in his head.

For most people, doing something like that would have been impossible. But after Azal had taken over the city, he had immediately realized that it was quite likely he would have to fight a battle – or several – within it soon enough. Back then, the rebellion’s situation had been far worse than it was even now, and Azal knew that they would require every little advantage they could get. So, he’d memorized it. Every little alley and road and side path and dead end and twist and turn and intersection… he knew them all like the back of his hand. Now, he hardly even needed to pause to think. In fact, he didn’t. He knew exactly where he was going, and that was enough. At every place where he had to make a choice where to go, at every split path or intersection, Azal already knew exactly where he needed to turn. He cut through the impassable city like a bird of prey, streaking towards his target with impossible speed and zero hesitation. In his mind, he didn’t even register the places he went past or the choices he made – he had no need to. It was all laid out within his head, a map inside his memory that made his own senses obsolete. All he had to do was follow the plans he’d created a long time ago, and he would reach the exact place he needed to be.

Soon enough, he reached it.

Without a moment’s thought, he threw open the door and dashed into the building. He wasn’t entirely certain of this building’s exact history, but it was hardly unusual here. It certainly would have been unusual anywhere else – the building he was inside was a tower, something that was hardly a common sight right beside people’s homes and stores and temples. But in Redgate, which had been built over time according to whatever its inhabitants had needed or wanted at any one particular moment, it was no odd sight. Most likely, it had been intended as some sort of storehouse that would be more compact than a more standardly-shaped one… but really, Azal didn’t know. Nor did he care. All that mattered was that it was the building he had chosen a long time ago, back when he had first developed the plan he was now putting into practice.

He ran up the stairs, moving with frantic haste, until he reached the top. Then, he threw open the hatch in the roof, sprinted upwards through it, and emerged atop the tower. And, for a moment, he simply stood there. He stood there… and fixed his eyes on a single point.

The place he stood was exposed and highly visible. It was the top of a tower, after all. So it would’ve been easy to see him here… or at least, that was what one would think. But all the other factors still worked in his favor. It was night, and his cloak was black, and the tower itself was built of dark grey stone that was scarcely lighter than the cloak in question. He was merely a tiny addition onto its silhouette, a formless shape that no one would see in this darkness.

No one, that was… except someone looking for it.

A few moments later, a similar shadow appeared on another roof, one in the inner city. The two of them glanced at each other for a tiny instant, and then, they nodded to each other, visible only as slight dips in their silhouette’s height. And then, the other silhouette sank back down, and Azal, too, descended back into the tower’s walls.

The person standing on that other building – the other silhouette Azal had seen – was surely putting herself at risk by aiding his plan. After all, she was right in the middle of the Council’s occupied territory, where all their men were gathered. Azal knew most of their efforts were focused on the defense of the walls, but that didn’t mean they wouldn’t be wary of an attack from the inside. Surely, they would be keeping an eye out for anyone who tried to aid the rebels among the people within the walls – and if such a person were caught, Azal knew the Council wouldn’t show mercy. Even though they were rather more inclined to care about things like honor or justice than Azal himself, he was still sure that they wouldn’t let one of the Bloodhorns escape unharmed.

Which was exactly why he’d picked the person he had as his accomplice for this on the other side of the wall. After all, of all the people he had at his disposal, she was by far and away the least likely to be caught. In fact, Azal dared to say that it would be rather close to impossible.

After all – and especially in such a setting – how could one possibly hope to catch a shadow?

Now, the first part of the plan was complete. All that was left was to go to where he would be needed next… and wait.

Azal darted through the city’s streets again, rushing back through the alleys using the exact same route he’d used to get to the tower in the first place. Once more, like a darting shade, he flew through the city with a speed and sureness that would have been impossible for any but those most closely acquainted with it. It wasn’t long before he made it back to where he needed to be next.

Namely, back to where the battle was raging, where Alexander’s troops threw themselves at the wall again and again and were repelled with unyielding force. As he peeked around the corner of the building he was standing behind, he looked up at the top of the wall. The sight confirmed what he’d always known. There, the Council’s troops still formed an impenetrable wall of steel, a deadly barricade bristling with steel and frozen in place by discipline. Even an army that outnumbered it heavily would have a difficult time dislodging such a formation. For the Bloodhorns, it would be impossible.

It was good, then, that they didn’t need to.

Azal tapped lightly on the stone of the building’s wall, and a number of the demons in the army turned to look at him. Azal turned towards one of them in particular. His eyes met Janus’, and they nodded silently, an affirmation that they were ready to execute the plan.

While the need for secrecy had been too great to inform Alexander – or, in fact, anyone – of the details of the plan, he had told the angel that he’d of secretly given some of his men his own orders. That was already more than what he’d have liked to reveal, but it was necessary. After all, if a contingent of Alexander’s army disappeared with no explanation and nothing that he could grasp onto as an explanation, Azal doubted the angel would just continue doing as he was supposed to.

So, he’d been forced to inform Alexander of at least that much. But the angel still didn’t know what they’d been ordered to do, or what the purpose of it was. And as for the men themselves, they didn’t have much more information. All they knew was what their orders were, not why they were doing as they were or even what their objective was. They had been told enough to do as they had to, and no more than that.

That was the one issue that somewhat unnerved Azal. After his first plan had failed due to his men not behaving as he had expected them to, it felt somewhat unsafe to expect that his men would follow a plan that they didn’t even know the specifics or objective of. But Azal had done his best to remedy that. The men he’d selected to go with him were all volunteers. It wasn’t what he’d have liked to do – many of them weren’t among the more experienced soldiers in the army, and he definitely had a feeling more than a few of them had just volunteered for the excitement of being on a secret mission – but it was better than the alternative. Having less experienced and less disciplined soldiers was certainly an issue, but Azal would take it over having soldiers who wouldn’t even be guaranteed to follow his orders.

The only person he’d planned to insist go with them was Janus. That had ended up being unnecessary – Janus had agreed to it more or less immediately – but Azal had been prepared to make him do it, whether he liked it or not. He had his own part in this plan, and while Azal couldn’t be certain it would be necessary, there was a very real chance it would be, and that was all Azal needed. He wasn’t willing to let chance decide whether his plan would work.

Well, in any case, he had his men, and now that they’d seen him, they knew that the plan would commence soon. For now, all that was left for him was to wait. He leaned against the side of a building, far from the front lines and the chaos atop the wall, and stared up at the grey skies above the inner city.

It only took a little while before he saw it.

A small, faint light shot up into the sky, nothing more than a tiny dot of yellow light amidst the endless sea of grey. It faded in moments, returning the sky to its natural dullness once more.

In this chaos, Azal doubted anyone they needed to worry about had noticed it, certainly not in the tiny time it had been in the air. But nevertheless, this wasn’t like the silhouettes from before. This time, it had been critical that as many people as possible of those who were supposed to see it did – and that meant that a sacrifice in stealth was necessary. It was a tiny, tiny spark – but it was still a spark. He was almost certain that someone had seen it – he simply hoped it wasn’t someone with the initiative or the authority to suspect something and cause problems for them. But it was possible it was.

And that meant they needed to move fast.

Azal nodded once more to Janus, snapped his fingers – just in case – and took off down the streets. The sound of running feet followed him, telling him that his men had followed him. He didn’t turn around to check if all of them were or if there were some missing. He didn’t have time to do that, and besides, even if there were people who weren’t going, he certainly didn’t have the time to go back to them. The volume of the sound told him that he probably had enough people in any case, and he wasn’t concerned with anything more specific than that.

He didn’t like to play these guessing games, didn’t like not knowing for sure how many of his men had followed his orders and how many men he would have with him when they struck. But in a situation like this, speed was absolutely critical. If that meant he needed to take a few chances, then so be it. It was the choice with the lesser possibility of failure anyway.

This time, he didn’t go by the same route he’d used last time. The tower had been chosen for a reason – it was a tall structure where someone who was looking for his silhouette would see it assuming they had the right angle, and it was positioned in such a way that getting to the building with the right angle wouldn’t be too difficult or dangerous for Aya, his accomplice on the other side of the wall. It surely wasn’t the only building in Redgate that met those conditions, but it worked well enough, and it was relatively close to where the battle was still taking place. As far as he was concerned, it was good enough.

But the place he was now heading too was chosen for a different reason entirely. Proximity.

No, that wasn’t quite right. Rather, the army had been positioned so that it would be close to where Azal now needed to go. After all, dashing through the city streets on his own was one thing – but doing it with a contingent of an army at his back was entirely different. As it was, there was every possibility that someone on the Council’s side would spot them and think something of it – and if so, it was entirely possible that their entire plan would be undone then and there. Of course, even then, there was still a chance they wouldn’t guess what Azal was actually planning… but that wasn’t a chance he wanted to take.

That was the reason he’d had Alexander begin his attack where he had. It had placed the army almost right next to the spot he needed them to be. That way, there would barely be any risk of being spotted, not when the Council’s army was concentrated on the defense.

But there still was a risk. So Azal made haste.

It wasn’t long before they reached where they had been going.

Of course, only Azal knew it was the place they needed to be. But he was the only one who needed to know. After all, his men had only been given one instruction.

“When a flaming arrow comes up from inside the walls, follow me.”

Without stopping even for a moment, Azal ran into an old building, a warehouse that had seemingly been abandoned a long time ago. His men followed him, pouring through the door – but even as he did, he was already running through it, racing towards the opposite side. There, he grabbed onto a ladder in a hatch in the floor and, with quick yet sure motions, climbed down it.

His men followed him, though they were slowed by the narrow door and ladder they had to traverse. But Azal was willing to wait for them. True, speed was necessary… but by this point, they were almost at the final stage of the plan anyway. A small delay was acceptable to get as many of his men as possible prepared and ready to strike.

In the meantime, he took out the torch he’d been carrying with him, lit it, and took a look around the basement where he now stood. He’d seen it before, of course, but… not in a while. Not since back when he’d first had it modified for his purposes.

Most of it looked like a normal basement, except for the fact that it was completely empty. It was merely a large, rectangular stone room. There were no items of furniture, no long-forgotten torches hanging on the walls, no boxes or piles of stored items, no personal belongings strewn about. There was simply… nothing. Not a single thing in the entire room beside the walls and the air.

And the large hole in one of the walls.

This had been Azal’s biggest project since he had taken over. True, it had also really been his only one, but nevertheless, it was impressive in scale for something created so quickly. He’d had all the timors he could possibly get helping, as well as any mages he could get his hands on, and when Melthar and Alexander had joined him, he’d also had them assist with this, which had speeded it up tremendously – but even then, it had taken a while to get it done. Of course it had – something like this couldn’t be done quickly, and even doing it as fast as Azal had was an achievement in and of itself. But of course he’d done it as quickly as he possibly could. After all, he’d always known that something like this would, almost certainly, be very useful one day.

And all that time, he’d done his best to, if at all possible, avoid letting even a single person know what it was for. But now, its time would finally come.

Azal prepared to lead his men down the tunnel he’d created throughout his reign – the secret tunnel that would lead them directly into the tower in the middle of Redgate.

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Chapter 39: Darkest Hour

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Alexander looked up, staring at the black tower. The tower of Redgate, the tower that had once belonged to Baron Amar, the tower that had been their palace for the entire war… now had the enemy’s banner flying from its walls once more.

Yes… once more. After all, that had been how it had been in the first place. Before the rebellion had begun, this city belonged to the Council… and the meaning of the banners now upon the walls of the great tower was clear: now, it belonged to the Council once more. All the rebels’ efforts had been for naught. The Council had retaken what had once been theirs, and this time, Alexander knew they had no intention of giving it up again.

Even from this far away, Alexander could see the top of the wall around the inner city – and he saw that now, it was bristling with spears and swords and gleaming with the shine of metal, the Council’s defenders gathered atop it. It had looked like that once before, back at the last battle of Redgate… but back then, the men up there had been the soldiers of the Bloodhorns, the men and demons who had decided that the Council had to fall. Now, that very Council’s forces were in control of the wall.

The wall made for a very defensible position. Alexander knew that from experience. Before, they’d managed to fend off the Council’s army for a long time upon that wall, long enough to buy Janus the time he needed to defeat Ihab and win the battle for them… and that was when the defenders had been hopelessly outnumbered. Now, if they attacked, they would be the ones outnumbered – and the defenders would truly hold all the cards.

From what he saw, too, it seemed like the Council had also endeavoured to get as many of the civilians in the city into the inner city as quickly as they could. That was the best explanation for the empty streets, the unlit torches and candles, the locked doors, the deserted houses. The entire city looked dead, an imposing, lifeless fortress with no reason for existence other than to block the way of those who tried to assail it.

Of course, Alexander knew that the real reason the Council had done that was nothing that sinister – they had simply wanted to spare the common people from the effects of the fighting (something that, he couldn’t help but notice, Azal hadn’t bothered to do). But that didn’t lessen the effect. The city, normally full of life – even if less than welcoming even at the best of times – now looked like nothing but a steely wall, a cold, icy bastion standing in monument to the Council’s might.

And he knew, too, that it wasn’t just that that was the issue. The Council had gathered as many people as it could inside the inner wall – and that was a danger of its own. The Bloodhorns hadn’t been unpopular – there were many people who were truly loyal to them – but they’d never been fully approved of, either. There were still many people, Alexander knew, who would love to see them fall and to see the Council retake control – and the Council had just almost certainly gathered many of those people inside the inner wall, where they would be nervous, confined, twitchy, itching to do something… and the one thing that there would be for them to do would be help achieve what they’d long desired in any case. He didn’t know if all of them would fight – when it came down to it, far from everyone would be willing to risk their lives in battle, and he knew the Council too well to think they’d try forcing them to – but many of them would. And that would be enough to give the Council even more of an advantage… as if they needed it.

Yes, certainly, there would be many loyalists to the Bloodhorns trapped inside the walls too, and perhaps they could have an effect. Perhaps they could disrupt the Council’s operations enough to give the Bloodhorns a chance; an attack from the inside at the right time, in the right place could be devastating, especially if it came as the city was under siege from outside. But would that happen? From the start, the trap had been an all-or-nothing plan: nearly all of the Bloodhorns’ soldiers had been participating in it, with the exception of a tiny force left behind to defend Redgate – but that had been intended to defend the city against a sudden uprising by pro-Council groups, not from something like this. Those soldiers were now all probably dead or captured, and of those people left who were loyal to the Bloodhorns, Alexander had to imagine none of them had any real military experience. Would they be able to perform the sort of surgical strike that could turn the tide? Would they have enough initiative to think of that in the first place, and if so, would they even know where and when to attack? And even if they did, would they be able to execute such an attack well enough for it to work?

There was a chance. But, Alexander knew, they wouldn’t be able to rely on it. There were many things he disagreed with Azal about, but there was one thing about which there was no doubt the chirean was correct – it was stupid to rely on things that could happen. A plan that relied on possibilities would be ruined simply by something not going exactly the way it was supposed to. If there was no other option, Alexander supposed it was better than not having a plan at all – but it was something to be avoided if at all possible. And they weren’t quite that desperate yet.

They would have to retake the city, and they wouldn’t be able to count on help from the inside. They would have to do this on their own, one way or another.

Alexander looked sideways at Azal. “So. Do you have a plan?”

Azal stared up at the tower, a cold anger in his expression. It seemed he wasn’t even that concerned about losing Redgate. He simply looked frustrated about it… and he looked like someone ready to do whatever it took to get it back. There was a steely determination in his eyes – the simple refusal that giving up was even an option, the will to keep going as long as even the smallest chance of victory existed. He was a man who would never surrender, not even if he had lost everything. To him, as long as there existed even the slightest chance of victory, it was a chance worth taking.

Alexander had to admit, it was impressive. He knew many men who would have seen this as a loss – in fact, he himself numbered among them. But to Azal, there was no such thing as a loss until it was all over. Until he had tried every avenue, attempted every attack, he would never concede defeat.

“I believe so, yes,” the chirean said. “But I will need time.”

“And I don’t suppose you would be willing to tell me what it is…?”

Azal shook his head. “No. I do not know how deep the Council’s influence goes. As long as there is even the slightest chance that they will know of it, I cannot tell anyone of my plan.”

“Somehow, I expected that,” Alexander said. “You saw what happened last time, right?”

“It would not have happened if not for the loss of discipline among the men,” Azal replied, sounding somewhat frustrated at his soldiers’ failure. “But… yes. My mistake was assuming that soldiers would always do exactly as they were supposed to, and placing them into a position where it was easy for discipline to disintegrate. But I have learned from that failure. I assure you, Alexander, I can retake the city.”

“I hope so,” Alexander said, a mild tinge of disapproval in his voice. What Azal was doing was dangerous. By keeping his plan entirely to himself, he forfeited the advice of anyone else – and to Alexander, who had actual military experience, that was especially annoying. If he’d simply consulted with him, Alexander could’ve pointed out the issue with the trap right away. But he hadn’t, and now, they were paying the price.

And yet… somehow, Alexander could not help but be convinced. Azal was not speaking particularly passionately, and he certainly wasn’t speaking with the sort of charisma and conviction that one would normally associate with being able to convince others, but… there was something else in his voice. It wouldn’t be right, precisely, to call it “confidence”. “Confidence” implied an acknowledgement that there was a chance for the plan to fail – and a belief that that chance could be avoided. But Azal’s tone contained something more like certainty. He was certain that this plan would not fail.

Of course, he’d been just as certain of the trap. But there was another thing that Alexander had to admire about Azal – he was a man devoid of pride, a man who would never believe himself to be greater than he truly was. Azal had claimed that he’d learned from his failure, and Alexander had expected as much from the very start. Where others were blinded by their own pride, unable to perceive that they even had made a mistake – much less what it was or how it could be improved upon – Azal analyzed each of his losses with even more care than he did his victories, always thinking about exactly what he’d done incorrectly, and how he could avoid doing it the second time. The chirean never made the same mistake twice.

And Alexander had to admit, the trap had been a rather good plan. The issue of discipline had been a large problem, one that had caused the entire plan to collapse… but it had also been, at least as far as Alexander could tell, the only problem. Azal was still relatively new to being in command, and he must not have been used to the idea that his subordinates were not fully controlled by his will. Now that he’d learned the error of his beliefs, Alexander knew he would not make that mistake again. And if he didn’t…

For all that he didn’t like how secretive Azal was being, for all that the odds were horrifically against them, for all that it seemed trying to force a direct battel now was suicide, Alexander couldn’t help but think that, somehow, by some miracle that he couldn’t begin to guess at, Azal’s plan would work.

He himself found it strange how easily he believed something like that… but more than that, he was surprised by how hard it was not to believe. Azal had a plan, a plan that he knew would work… and somehow, Alexander couldn’t imagine that it wouldn’t.

“Alright,” he nodded. “I can’t say I like it, but… I’ll go with it. What do I have to do?”

War, by its very nature, demanded sacrifices.

No matter how great a commander, no matter how one-sided the odds, no matter how seemingly brilliant a plan, almost no large battle could end without both sides suffering losses. And the only exceptions were those that barely qualified as “battles” at all – surprise attacks against an enemy who was completely unprepared, utilizing the environment or the power of mages or both to in some way defeat an opponent without their armies even coming into contact with yours… those sorts of things. But all those were fundamentally different from what was happening now. In a simple battle like this, no side would get away without its people dying.

Of course, there was a distinction to be made between “light” and “heavy” losses. Of course, it was entirely possible for one side to suffer so few losses that, in the grand scheme of things, it would barely matter. But… was that really true? It was a question Alexander had reflected on quite a few times over the course of his long life. No matter how light the losses, no matter how few people died, there were still always people who had died. There were always families that would never be whole again, friends that would never see people they had known for nearly their entire life again, and tears and anguish and pain. And the cut-off dreams, the terrifying black void that was death, the lost future… the men themselves suffered just as much in their final moments. It was only natural that no living being wanted to die. So it made sense that to many, knowing they were about to die and being helpless to stop it would be the most frightening thing in the world. There were a few exceptions, of course – men and women like Councillor Ihab or General Katherine, or, Alexander supposed, probably Azal, to whom death held no terror – but of the common soldiers… surely almost all of them were terrified, scared and frightened and simply afraid, afraid for their own lives. And yet commanders and generals sent them off to fight against the enemy, sent them off to take part in their plans and tactics – knowing all the while that they were sending those men to their death, to that merciless dark abyss.

It always happened. But it was always the only way. Many commanders didn’t truly understand the horror of it all, whether because the sorts of people who generally became commanders were more likely to be those rare exceptions who didn’t fear death or because they simply didn’t understand the truth of war well enough to truly comprehend how many people they were sending to their death… or perhaps, like Alexander couldn’t help but feel he himself had, because they had simply grown accustomed to death a long time ago. But however horrifying it was… it was as he’d learned a long, long while ago. War, by its very nature, demanded sacrifices.

Still, Alexander could not help but feel conflicted about what he was doing.

Was it the first time he’d felt this way…? Certainly not. But that didn’t make what he was about to do any easier.

Azal’s instruction had been simple. Keep them occupied. All Alexander had to do was force them to defend the walls with all they had – to force them to be unprepared for whatever Azal planned to do. He did not have to worry about winning the battle, about achieving any objectives, about defeating the enemy’s army and plans. All he had to do was attack, and keep the attack going for as long as it took.

And in the process, he would be throwing away hundreds or thousands of lives on a hopeless battle.

Sending his men to a battle where they could win, where they could triumph and drive off their foes… that was one thing. This was different. This was sending them straight into a slaughter, where they would have no hope of victory – merely of surviving until Azal did whatever he was planning. Their fates would be entirely in the hands of another. If Azal’s plan failed, his men would all die – they wouldn’t have a chance of defeating the Council by themselves, after all. And they would all die for nothing, and for them, it would be futile to even try and fight for their lives.

And yet… he’d already made his choice. He’d already decided to trust in Azal’s plan. Now that some time had passed, he no longer felt quite as confident as he had before… but that didn’t matter. He’d made his decision. There was no choice now but to stick to it. All he could do was believe that Azal’s plan would work… and if it did, then his men’s deaths wouldn’t be futile after all.

“Let’s go, men,” he said. “It’s time to bring them down.”

There was no time to build any sort of complicated siege engines. But then, it would have been a futile effort anyway. It didn’t matter how well-prepared for the siege they were – they simply could not defeat the Council’s forces, not while they were both outnumbered and forced to attack a fortified enemy. Their only hope was to do what Alexander had planned on – keep them occupied until Azal’s plan came to fruition.

So it didn’t particularly matter that they didn’t have advanced siege engines. That didn’t matter. Victory wasn’t their objective. All they needed was to force the enemy to defend the walls – and that could be done perfectly well without a single catapult or trebuchet.

After the Council had beaten them to Redgate and taken the city with almost no resistance, the Bloodhorns’ army had paused for a while, so the Council had had some time to rest and recuperate. But, Alexander quickly saw, that hadn’t lulled them into complacency. The moment they began to approach the walls, the Council’s army was already on the move, and soon enough, even though it would still be a while before they’d reach the inner city, the Council’s men had assembled and were ready for battle. Even from this distance, just by observing their movements and actions, Alexander could see the men standing on the wall were, by and large, not fighting for the same sort of reason the Bloodhorns’ forces were. Azal was excellent at provoking outrage – that had been what started this entire rebellion, after all, and that was what had driven his men, again and again, to fight the Council’s forces. But General Katherine’s skill lay elsewhere. In her men, she instilled a sense of duty, a sense that they were working for the greater good of all demonkind and that victory would mean that all demons would prosper – and that giving up would be tantamount to betraying uncountable number of demons who relied on them.

And while they were both valid approaches, it just so happened that, for this situation in particular, General Katherine’s method was better.

Outrage produced vicious fighters – it produced people who would be willing to fight tooth and nail against what they saw as the trespasses of their oppressors, who would be willing to tear through enemies without remorse on the battlefield. But it produced just that – fighters. Those fuelled by outrage were unstoppable on the field of battle – but the moment they were out of battle for even an instant, all too often, one of two things would happen. Either they would recklessly rush back into the fray, striving to cut down those they despised before their commanders could have any say in the matter; or, as had happened during the failed trap, the boiling fire would leave them and they would flag, their formation losing steadiness and order and leaving them ripe for an enemy attack.

But that sense of duty Katherine had created did something else. If Azal’s men, fuelled by their hatred of and rage against the Council, were a raging fire, Katherine’s men were the stone wall that held the flames in check. They didn’t have the same unbridled aggression and bravery on the battlefield that those fuelled by rage did, but they had another advantage. Those sorts of men would need barely any encouragement to maintain order. To them, it was their duty to always be prepared to face the enemy, to never be off their guard for even a moment. Once the idea was properly instilled into a man, he would never even think of breaking formation or of dropping his guard when the enemy was anywhere nearby – no, he would stand there with weapons in hand, prepared to fight, waiting for the foe for as long as it took. If it took hours for the battle to begin, then those men would wait hours, and they would be just as ready to fight then as they would have been if the battle had commenced immediately.

Of the two options, there was no question which one was better for a defending army.

Granted, of course, those were both idealizations. In truth, there was no such thing as an unstoppable warrior or a perfectly disciplined soldier; and while there were people who were close, they were far from common, even in the Council’s army – and much less so in the Bloodhorns’. In general, a warrior in either army was, more than anything, a nearly normal person – a nearly normal person who just happened to have to fight a war. But still, even if those two extremes of the raging whirlwind and the immovable shield were nothing but ideals, they were useful images to keep in mind. After all, even if almost no soldier was even close to one of them, just about every soldier was leaning ever so slightly towards one of them – and given the amount of men involved, even just that slight inclination could produce large results if enough of the men in an army shared it.

Of course, Alexander reminded himself… that wasn’t exactly relevant now, was it?

As they approached, there was a great noise above them, and Alexander looked up. All around the walls, the archers had loosed their arrows – and now, the sky above them was a great sea of grey, the arrows falling onto the advancing army like the wrath of a god.

So… it seemed the battle had begun.

Alexander smiled.

He’d seen the wrath of a god before. He’d seen it quite a few times, in fact. It wasn’t as impressive as everyone made it out to be.

“Men… charge! Go, take what’s ours back from those bastards!”

The last few arrows smashed and impacted and clanged all around Alexander, several dozen discordant sounds of stone and flint and metal striking throughout the army. Fortunately, even now, there was still one advantage the Bloodhorns had over the Council – superior equipment. When Ian had arrived with his men, he’d brought steel with him – and when Melthar’s additional assistance arrived later on, they’d brought even more of the stuff. In comparison, the Council’s forces, for all their superior numbers, had no choice but to use abros, the weaker metal of Aead. Of course, they had access to some steel, and Alexander had no doubt they’d come across some of it here – but the majority of their army was outfitted in something weaker.

That said, even that wasn’t as great an advantage as it seemed at first glance. Even with the assistance from Sagnir, the Bloodhorns hadn’t managed to get nearly enough steel – or men who could work with it – to equip all their soldiers with it. They had a considerable amount, yes, but there were still a lot of troops among them who were forced to use abros.

Fortunately, Alexander had taken that into account. So, he’d put the steel-clad troops in the front. That way, they were the first to come into the archers’ range, and that made all the difference. Against abros armor, an abros arrow could punch through rather easily given a powerful enough bow and a somewhat fortunate shot – against steel, it had no chance. The enemy’s arrows had smashed harmlessly against the approaching tide of demons, and they had done nothing to slow them.

Well… nearly nothing.

Even with high-quality armor, nothing was ever a guarantee. Even steel armor had weak points – and since the Bloodhorns had never had a high supply of steel in the first place, those weak points were particularly plentiful in this case. Although most of the men had made it through unscathed, Alexander heard a few arrows strike true and sink into flesh, and he heard a few choked screams and the sound of bodies dropping to the ground as he ran forth. The first casualties of this battle.

And then, they were at the wall. For just a moment, Alexander found himself deliberating, thinking whether or not he should ascend the ladders himself. On one hand, it seemed insulting to do otherwise – to tell all his men that they would have to risk their lives in a hopeless struggle against the Council and not do so himself – and besides, it would improve morale. On the other, Azal was right – it was never a good idea to expose the leader to unnecessary danger. The loss of a few men was nothing, but the loss of a commander could be fatal.

With that one moment of hesitation, the choice was taken away from him before he could make it. The men around him surged forth, racing past each other to ascend the ladders, and soon, he was lost in the tide. At that point, he doubted he could’ve made it to the ladders even if he tried.

Well… he just hoped there wouldn’t be too many casualties. He didn’t want his men to be slaughtered while he stood down here twiddling his thumbs.

Of course, then again, how many casualties there would be would be contingent on just one thing. Azal… how long will this plan of yours take?

He looked up at the wall, trying to work out in his mind if he could try and use magic to help his men out. He had regained most of his energy since that fire, so pure power wasn’t a concern. The situation, though… the situation was bad for it. If he tried to just shoot magical force at the top of the walls from down here, he would scatter his own men just as well as those of the Council. Granted, it was true that he would probably do more harm to the Council than he would to his own troops, but… he couldn’t intentionally hurt his own men. And anything more complex would require more concentration than he’d be able to get while the men surged and rushed forth around him.

So, he simply watched the battle.

As he looked on, the first flashes of dancing steel lit up the air, and the slaughter began.

It was difficult for the Council’s troops, with their inferior weapons, to penetrate the Bloodhorns’ steel – but neither did they need to. At first, at least, they simply pushed the men off the wall as they came, sending them plummeting down – and taking several others with them at the same time. The fall was high, but the city of Redgate’s layout worked in their favor – stone roads had only been built to the gates of the wall, and as they weren’t near one of them right now, the soldiers fell onto Aead’s relatively soft soil. Even then, and even with the steel armor’s protection, it wasn’t an entirely harmless fall, but it generally didn’t cause any real injuries.

But it wasn’t long before the Council started figuring out what the Bloodhorns already knew – that their weaponry wouldn’t be able to penetrate steel armor, not if they struck directly at it. So, they began to strike elsewhere.

As the next few men ascended, most of them were simply tossed off once more. But in one place, Alexander saw the Council try something else. A soldier batted aside the weapon of one of the Bloodhorns’ attackers and, with a quick swing, struck at the arm, where the armor was weaker. This time, the blade struck true, and blood flew from the wound. With brutal efficiency, the man pinned down the Bloodhorns’ soldier, ridded him of his weapon, and thrust a short sword through his eye. He twitched twice and stopped moving, and as the weapon was withdrawn, a spurt of blood poured from his eye socket as his limp body rolled off the wall.

Then, the men that had previously been nearer the back got to the ladders – the men who didn’t have steel armor. They rushed up the ladders, swarming up like a rising wave… and, like a rising wave, they broke upon the shore.

Before, the Council’s retaliation had been stymied by the attacker’s armor. Now, that was no longer an obstacle. The Council cut through the rebel forces ascending to meet them with ruthless speed, chopping them down as they clambered onto the wall, before they’d even had time to draw their weapons. The tops of the ladders became fountains of blood as the Council sliced and slashed at the ascending rebels, and their bleeding bodies fell to the ground almost the instant they came up.

Of course, Alexander hadn’t been idle all this time. He’d been getting more siege ladders set up, more points of entry for the Bloodhorns’ army. But it was useless. The Council had the manpower to cover all of them. As Alexander’s men set up more ladders, the Council’s forces simply spread out a bit more to defend against every point of attack – and even as they did, he didn’t see even a slight drop in their efficiency. Even as they rearranged themselves, they continued slicing through the approaching rebels just as quickly as they had been before, still not letting even a single one onto the wall for more than a moment. And even though their forces were being spread more thinly, they could afford it. They had so much manpower that, even if the entire wall was surrounded with ladders, Alexander had a feeling the Council would still be able to hold it just fine.

But he had no choice. He just had to keep this going. Though… his men were doing that on their own well enough.

More and more of his men ascended up the ladders, and again and again, they were cut down. Before, back when they had been the ones defending the wall against the Council, it hadn’t been long at all before the lines had started showing cracks and enemy forces started getting onto the wall itself. But now, nothing like that was happening. Most likely, it was due to the enemy’s superior discipline – but whatever the reason was, not a single breach had opened up in the defense, even with all the lives that had been thrown at it. The enemy remained as steady and solid as they had always been, a wall of steel atop the one of stone – and against a mountain like that, the waves of the rebels could do naught but crash harmlessly against the shore, painting the soil beneath them red.

Alexander looked around. Already, he could see that his men had taken considerable losses. It wasn’t fatal, not yet – but they couldn’t keep this up for much longer. They just didn’t have the manpower, or, he suspected, the morale. If the Council kept going like this, how long would it be before the Bloodhorns’ army simply broke and refused to attack?

Well, in the long run, it didn’t matter. Even if every single man here threw away his life to strike at the Council, it wouldn’t help. They couldn’t dislodge the Council’s forces. That was simple mathematics. The Council outnumbered them – and that was even before taking into account the enormous advantage they got from a strong defensive position. Winning this battle was, simply speaking, impossible.

But nevertheless, the men kept going.

More and more of them swarmed up the ladders, like ants swarming up the slopes of their anthill – and again and again, they were cut down. Not a single rebel was allowed to remain on the wall, and no matter what the Bloodhorns’ forces tried, they couldn’t change that. Nearly every single man who ascended the ladders died – and while the Council had also taken a few losses, thanks to a few lucky hits from the lucky few who had managed to stay on the wall for more than an instant, they were miniscule in comparison. At this rate, his men would all be annihilated, and the Council would barely-

Something caught Alexander’s eye, and he looked up.

A small dot of light shot up into the sky, somewhere within the inner city’s wall. It took a moment for him to realize it, but it was a flaming arrow, probably sent up from the roof of one of the buildings within the inner city.

It was dim in the grey light of Aead, and it vanished almost as quickly as it had appeared – but Alexander’s heart leapt up into his throat anyway at the sight of it.

A flaming arrow… a signal.

It had been fairly dim. Alexander was nearly certain that none of the soldiers themselves had seen it – they had been far too caught up in the chaos of battle. And even the fact that he himself had seen it was simple luck. If he hadn’t happened to have been looking at just the right spot, it would’ve escaped his notice completely. Most people, he was sure, wouldn’t even realize anything had happened. The only sort of person who could be certain of seeing it… would be one who was looking for it.

Of course, Alexander knew what it meant.

Azal… what do you have in mind?

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Chapter 38: The Trap

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The army charged forward. And Ian Sabrin watched it go.

He knew what the plan was. Azal hadn’t told him, of course – the chirean would never tell him any more than he had to – but it was rather clear. They would encircle the burning town, trap the enemy between a rock and a hard place – force them to decide between staying in the deadly flames or rushing out into the Bloodhorns’ force. Whatever they picked, the next few hours would take a terrible toll on them. If they stayed, many of them would be trapped in the fire and burned or crushed, and if they attacked, they’d be forced to rush through narrow streets and alleys, where they’d be unable to use their numbers to their full extent – and they’d be running straight into the circle of soldiers surrounding them.

Ian had to admire Azal. It had been a simple trap, but it had worked, exploiting the enemy’s own beliefs and ideals to trick them into going exactly where Azal needed them – and then, when the trap snapped shut, it left the enemy in a position without a winning move. It was an impressively clever move.

But, of course, Ian wasn’t supposed to be involved in it. He’d been told to stay behind, to keep an eye on Redgate and the rest of the rebels’ territories along with a few other people Azal had left behind. Of course, Ian had no illusions about the real reason for that. It had nothing to do with where Azal believed his talents would be best used. It was simply because Azal didn’t trust him to be on the same battlefield as him.

And, well… he was right to think that.

Honestly, Ian didn’t know what had possessed the leader to walk out onto the battlefield himself when he’d always stayed behind in safety behind – perhaps, he supposed, Azal had simply decided he couldn’t leave this in anyone else’s hands – but it would be helpful. That one decision… if Ian had his way, it would be, quite literally, Azal’s fatal mistake.

He had his bow strapped to his back, a quiver with a few arrows near it. All it would take would be a single good opportunity.

He wasn’t happy about this, he had to admit. He did have a certain respect for Azal – he possessed a savviness that, Ian found, was all too rare among most people. But at the end of the day, from the start, he’d had just one thing planned for this rebellion. This was a chance for Ian to become the ruler of all demonkind, to change the world forever – and it was not a chance he would waste.

No matter how distasteful the methods necessary might be.

The army approached the town. As it did, the line at the front curved, the outer elements going further forward as they went – and then, they reached the burning town. The very ends of the army turned and closed in, forming the entire army into a circular formation. And at the middle of it all, trapped inside the deadly circle, was the burning town where their enemies were.

The maneuver had been executed remarkably well, though perhaps that was not surprising. From the start, it hadn’t been the most complex of tactics – and besides, Azal had placed Melthar and Alexander in the outer wings to coordinate them. True, the two of them were too exhausted already to be much help in a fight, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t command.

The army settled down around the town and waited.

Azal felt a small grin growing on his face. The trap had worked perfectly. Quite frankly, he’d almost expected something to go wrong… but then, he supposed that it was that very expectation that was the reason the current reality was so satisfying. For once, something had gone right, and Azal was the one who had come up with it. He knew it was a bad idea to get overconfident, and he knew hubris was the greatest toppler of empires… but, for just a moment, he allowed himself a moment of gratification.

But there was no time to bask in his own glory. There were things to do.

The front line of soldiers readied their arms, settled into a fighting position, and continued to wait. It wasn’t long before the first few came.

A few enemy soldiers rushed towards the ring.

They must’ve been separated from the rest of their army in the panic – presumably, as the fire had been fanned and rose once more, they’d sprinted off in terror and abandoned the rest of their men. That was exactly what Azal was counting on. With such a setup, he thought he’d have a good chance of defeating the Council’s army even if all of them attacked at one point – the alleys would massively reduce the advantage their numbers gave them – but… Azal had never been one for fair battles. The more enemy soldiers got separated and ran off on their own into the ring of death, the better.

The smoke and the flame stopped the running demons from realizing what awaited them outside the city until it was too late. It barely took a few seconds. There were a few quick flashes of steel, a few men took a few steps into the city to chase down the one who had managed to turn around, and then, their dead bodies lay on the ground. The men stepped back into position with self-satisfied efficiency, not wasting a moment.

The brief defence had only killed a few enemy soldiers – a negligible amount. But how many of them would there be? All around the ring, Azal knew the other soldiers would be fighting similar engagements – and it would happen again and again as more of the enemy got separated from the army and wandered off on their own. And to add to that, he was sure the fire would claim many victims on its own. The more the enemy delayed, the more they would be slowly bled by the flame and by Azal’s formation… and if they tried to force a decisive battle, they’d get it – only in such a situation, Azal somehow doubted the outcome would be what they would hope for.

Azal smiled to himself. Excellent. All was going according to plan.

“Clever bastard,” Melthar muttered to himself. “You clever freaking bastard, Azal.”

The demon fell dead at his feet, the blade of Melthar’s sword having cleaved him so easily it had felt almost like slicing air. Granted, that was only because of the demons’ poor armor – against proper steel, even a sword enchanted by Lein would have at least some trouble when it had been so long since the enchantments had been touched up – but that was good enough here.

Melthar noted with a small note of worry how easy it had become to think about Lein, and about the fact that he was gone. It shouldn’t have surprised him, he supposed, not really. Living beings didn’t spontaneously stop functioning for weeks and weeks just because their friends perished. Sure, sometimes it felt like that was how it should’ve been, but… that would hardly be evolutionarily prudent, would it? And besides, Melthar had gotten used to death, in all the different forms it took. True, losing Lein was a harsher blow by far than most of the deaths he’d been forced to witness, but… that mattered surprisingly little, in the grand scheme of things. Melthar had already gotten used to seeing people disappear.

Which, he mused, could explain why he found it so easy to kill these demons. Perhaps that was a bit worrisome.

Azal was a good propagandist. A rebel leader had to be – and Azal had done an excellent job of convincing the demons under his rule that the demons serving the Council were nothing more than monsters, cruel sociopaths who desired nothing but to crush the rebels under their heel and make them suffer. (What, Melthar wondered, did he plan to do about that once the war was won? If he didn’t do something, his own followers would become crueller tyrants than the Council had ever been…) But Melthar hadn’t been caught up in any of it. He knew demons too well – knew that they were every bit as much normal people as humans, or alkites, or deirae, or Great Powers… or the rebels. So when he thought about it, it was quite worrying just how easily killing them came to him. As long as he didn’t spend too long thinking about it, he didn’t even really feel anything at all.

Well, then again… he’d just answered his own worry, hadn’t he? He’d simply grown used to death. Whoever’s death it was.

Melthar cleaned the blood from his sword with a quick swipe and a small effort of will, teleporting the blood to the side and letting it fall down to the ground. Normally, such a fine manipulation of space would have been far beyond his capabilities, but it was as he’d told Councillor Ihab a while ago – this sword was something he’d used for so long that even he couldn’t quite remember when it was first forged. With all that time, he’d learned quite a long time ago to recognize and interact with its… “signature” in space, as it were, to a far greater degree than that of anything else. Cleaning the blood off it had been as simple as moving everything in that area of space off to the side and specifically excluding the sword.

He settled his gaze back on the burning town. Then, a thought came to him, and he took a quick look behind him, looking at the lines of soldiers – but discipline was holding, at least so far, though Melthar was quite sure some of them looked impatient. He could sympathize with them. After all, he’d actually gotten bored enough to go off on that mental tangent, which probably wasn’t a good sign for how the troops had to be feeling.

“Hey! Stand up straight, men! To attention!” he barked, trying to restore order to the lines. A sudden wave of surprise ran through the men as they were all snapped out of their daydreaming, and they stood up ramrod straight. Melthar sighed with intentionally exaggerated annoyance and turned back to the burning city.

For gods’ sake (and no, Melthar didn’t care that him using that expression was weird when he was, in a way, a god himself). This… would not be easy. He had to stop himself from fidgeting impatiently. It wouldn’t set a good example for the men.

He was starting to see a potential problem with this plan.

Alexander’s men dashed into the city, swarmed the approaching demons, and stepped back again with practiced efficiency. He nodded at them. “Good work, men.”

Azal had kept them all in the dark about the plan until the battle had almost begun, and as much as Alexander disapproved of that, he had to admit it was a good plan… at least, in theory. If the men held their positions and did as they were supposed to, this plan would be able to defeat the Council here and now.

But, in truth… Alexander couldn’t help but be worried.

He’d been in a lot of battles, after all. And he’d been in enough battles to know that that was quite a large if. It was never a good idea to force soldiers to wait, prepared for battle but not doing anything, for long periods of time – especially in situations like this, where there was little danger. In another circumstance, the men would at least have anxiety keeping them alert as they worried about what would happen in the next engagement. That wouldn’t be good either, but at least it would be better than the current situation – as it was, many of the men were simply growing bored and inattentive. They knew that, when the enemy came, they would be little threat – at this point, the battles had become more like a chore. And that was bad. For now, it was working alright… but what would happen when the enemy struck out at the line in greater force, and the men weren’t ready for it?

Alexander had tried his best to mitigate the issue, which was why he’d set up his troops as he had. Throughout his section of the siege, the troops stationed nearest the city all had a few things in common – they were humans from Sagnir rather than demons, and they were ones who’d had at least some military experience. Few of them could truly be considered “veterans”, as such, but Melthar’s recruitment, for all that it had brought in a lot of manpower, hadn’t brought in that much good manpower, so he’d done the best he could with what he had. Granted, the manpower it had brought in was quite good compared to the rest of the rebel forces – the vast majority of the actual demons in the Bloodhorns’ army hadn’t had a bit of military experience before joining the rebellion, which was why Alexander’s forces nearest the town were all humans – but still, not good as a whole. Still, they were better than the rest, so he’d stationed them nearest the town – that way, hopefully, they wouldn’t start dropping their guard quite as fast as the rest of the troops, so they’d at least be able to keep this going for a while.

Still, he had a feeling this wasn’t sustainable. Yes, Azal’s plan had been clever, there was no debating that… but it couldn’t quite work when the realities of the battlefield were taken into account. Granted, they probably would be able to inflict significant losses… but eventually, the other shoe would drop. It was just a matter of “when”.

When that happened, Alexander could only hope Azal had another plan.

The plan continued to work.

Even from all the way out here, Azal could hear the screams of those trapped inside the fire, hear the sounds of stone falling and bones breaking as the flames themselves took their toll on the enemy. And when some of the enemy tried to escape, they were dispatched, just as swiftly and efficiently as the first few had been. It was a perfect trap. If the enemy stayed, they would burn to death. If they attempted to flee, they would be killed by his men.

Azal watched idly as another small group of enemies approached, some distance away from where he was standing in the circle. He didn’t even have to signal his forces. They simply surged into the town, eliminated the foes, and came back to the circle.

The flow of enemies had dried up somewhat since the circle had first closed – it seemed the Council’s forces must’ve gotten their troops back under control and made them stop panicking as much. Still, even what they’d done so far was already rather noticeable. Perhaps they hadn’t inflicted critical losses, not yet, but they’d done a lot – and that wasn’t even taking into account whatever the fire had done to the enemy. There was no accurate way of figuring out just how much damage the flames had inflicted, but Azal didn’t particularly need to know that. All he needed to know was that they were doing what he’d intended them to do – and if the screams he was still periodically hearing were any indication, they were.

Azal smirked, watching his handiwork. And the trap held.

More and more minutes passed, and still, the trap held. There’d been a few more engagements, a few more incidents of panicked foes trying to run outside only to be met with the Bloodhorns’ forces – but they had gotten much less frequent. Still, that didn’t matter too much. The trap held.

And more time passed, until even Azal lost track of just how long it had been. And the trap held.

And then, Azal heard a different sort of screaming.

His head whipped to the right, towards the source of the noise. And there…

His eyes widened. There, an enormous force of the Council’s troops had gathered together, presumably their main army – and, like a battering ram, they’d smashed straight into the Bloodhorns’ lines. It was a disadvantageous situation for them, with the relatively narrow alleyways limiting their numbers, and they could only take full advantage of their numerical superiority if they managed to get out onto the open field – and yet, that was exactly what they were doing. The Bloodhorns’ troops, the troops that were supposed to rush into the city and meet the Council’s forces head on, were instead shattering under the assault.

It took Azal a moment to realize what was happening. But it was a simple problem, really – the troops hadn’t been ready. They’d gotten used to only facing small groups of foes that presented no real danger. So when the Council’s entire army had arrived, they weren’t prepared for it…

No, that didn’t matter, not now. His mind shifted to more useful things.

This was still salvageable. They still had one option left to them. He looked around quickly. All around him, his men were staring wide-eyed at the scene, shocked and dismayed. Their formation had broken completely, and they resembled a loose mob more than an army. But that was just because of shock. It’d just take a quick command to get them back in order, and then-

Azal opened his mouth to shout, and then, he saw someone who should not have been here.

There was no time to process the drawn bow, the arrow pointing straight at him, the cold gaze in the man’s eyes. Azal just threw himself to the ground.

The arrow slammed into his arm, and the men erupted into chaos.

“Dammit!” Alexander yelled. “Men, go! Stop them!”

He frantically directed his men, indicating the breach. He’d figured something like this would happen. Eventually, the Council’s forces would try to escape, and the Bloodhorns’ army was in no state to stop them, not after what Azal had had them do. The lines had broken in an instant, the soldiers there not prepared for a real battle, and panic had shut down any possibility of resistance. There was only one way to stop the enemy now – reinforce the attacked area and use the ring of men around the town to surround them. But would he be able to do that in time…?

His men rushed towards the breach, hastily preparing themselves for a fight, and Alexander ran with them. He still doubted he was in any shape to cast any significant magic after he’d lit that fire, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t fight… and in any case, seeing him there, fighting alongside his men, would help with morale, whether or not he actually contributed anything of value. And morale, he had a feeling, was about to be in short supply.

Alexander couldn’t see the battle well from this far away, especially when his view was being obscured by so many soldiers, but he thought he could make it out well enough to get an idea of how it was going. The fighting, such as it was, was fierce. Even now, many of the Bloodhorns’ men were simply being cut down while they were still unprepared for a fight – but those who had managed to get themselves ready in time were fighting tooth and nail, making the Council pay for every meter they advanced, slowing them down bit by bit. They must have known, after all. They must have known that this was their one and only chance – their chance to end this war once and for all, the tactic that, if it worked, could finish their enemies then and there. And they must have known that if it failed, they would not be able to defeat the Council in a direct battle. If they fell here, it would be the end of the Bloodhorns – and then all of their futures would be severed.

And so, they fought. They could do no more than delay, stall the Council’s forces for mere moments – but in these circumstances, even mere moments could turn the tide. If the Council’s forces were encircled, if the ring around the town gathered together around them, there was still a chance. Packed into a formation that tight, they would barely be able to fight even on an individual level, much less make full use of their numbers. The Bloodhorns’ soldiers must have realized that, at least on some level – or at the very least, they knew that if they just held on for long enough, there would be men that would come to their aid. That was what was motivating them to fight their hopeless fight, to do everything they could to slow the Council’s escape, even if it was only by a few seconds.

Alexander could see, even now, that it would all be futile.

He saw it as the last shards of resistance in the ring shattered, and the Council’s force poured forth out of the town. As they went, some of the men turned and slammed into the circle from the other end, clearing the path for the ones that were still coming – and so the stream turned into a river, and with every man that escaped, the Council’s forces began to escape faster and faster. Every man that broke out of the trap made it easier for his fellows to break out. It was a tide that could not be stemmed, not anymore.

At this point, going into the fight would just be suicide, but the angel didn’t even have to yell a command – the men all saw it too, and they froze in shock. Acting, he was sure, purely on instinct, they all turned as one to the plains outside the city, where the Council’s force was now pouring into. And as they watched, more men came, and more, and more. It was a force that seemed impossibly large, almost endless, and it seemed as though it was so utterly superior to the gathered rebels as to make the idea of a battle almost laughable. Of course, Alexander knew that wasn’t quite true – the Bloodhorns’ forces were still spread out around the perimeter of the town, giving the impression that they were more badly outnumbered than they actually were – but the damage was done. After seeing that spectacle, what man would willingly go to fight that endless tide?

And the Council’s forces did not turn to face them. They merely marched on, rushing away from the town, rushing onwards with single-minded determination… rushing, Alexander realized, straight towards Redgate.

“Azal…” he breathed, “I hope you planned for this too…”

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Chapter 37: Flames of War

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There’d been many things the two of them had been prepared for. They’d expected an ambush. They’d expected an odd absence of the enemy. They’d expected a feigned retreat, some sort of an attempt to lead them elsewhere. In fact, although both of them had dismissed it as extremely unlikely, they’d even prepared – just in case – for the event that the enemy would simply choose to meet them on the field of battle. In short, they’d been ready for every trick the rebels could possibly have tried.

Except, it seemed, this.

Leonid stared blankly at the spectacle unfolding in front of him, his mind processing what he was seeing. Although, he had a feeling he knew. He knew what had happened… and he felt he knew exactly what the rebels hoped to achieve.

Fire.

Fire licked the skies, dancing through the air like so many serpents of ethereal orange and red, mingling with each other with an odd grace. Fire lit up the red plains like a great torch, a blazing beacon in the midst of the dull grey light. Fire writhed in the air, a symbol of chaos rising in defiance to the Council’s forces, the rebels’ mark on the landscape of Aead.

And at the base of it all, it roared up from a town.

From what Leonid knew, they’d passed into the rebels’ territory a short time ago, so they were currently near the outskirts. So, in other words, this town was under the rebellion’s control – and while Leonid supposed it could be a coincidence that a fire had just so happened to start there, he doubted it. It was almost certain, he thought, that the rebels had started the fire intentionally.

He felt he knew why. Although he hoped, desperately, that he was wrong.

Of course, buildings in Aead were largely built of stone, so they weren’t flammable… but that didn’t mean a fire wasn’t dangerous. Because while the stone was impervious to fire, it wasn’t the only thing Aeadean buildings were made of. Almost all buildings used various other materials too, whether simply to hold the stone together or to provide greater protection from the climate, or for another reason entirely – and many of those burned perfectly fine. It was far from impossible to make a building that would be completely impervious to fire, of course, but it wasn’t an issue of possibility: it was an issue of cost. In a place like, say, the centre of Merdrun, Leonid would’ve been surprised to see even one building that would have a chance of falling to a fire like this – but here, it would’ve surprised him to see just one that wouldn’t.

Even as Leonid watched, he saw a house collapse, one of the walls giving out and collapsing, the heavy stone – still largely undamaged, though charred – falling to the ground in a thunderous roar. It was a chain reaction. The roof fell next, no longer held up by the wall that had just fallen, and as it collapsed, so did the other walls, there no longer being anything to support them. What had once been someone’s home collapsed inwards, shattering and breaking into nothing more than a pile of rocks, much of the material still blazing in the mound.

If anyone had been in that house when it collapsed, they would’ve been lucky to die instantly from the impact of the falling rocks. Otherwise, they would be burned alive, their skin and flesh charred by the flames and the unbearably hot stone and soil – and if, by some miracle, they survived that, they would still be buried, trapped under an immovable dome of stone with little air and no food or water. They would desperately hope for help, pray that someone would arrive before death inevitably took them… but sadly, it was unlikely. They were in the rebels’ territory, where no one associated with the Council would go with anything but hostile intent – and yet they were on the outskirts of that territory, where there would most likely be no one else close enough to help. Any help that could arrive would never arrive in time.

Unless…

Silently, Leonid cursed the rebels in his mind. Of course. Leave it to them to come up with something like this…

“They’re… burning their own towns…” Katherine muttered behind him, in disbelief.

“Not quite,” Leonid said, shaking his head. “I’d be willing to bet this is the only one we’ll find like this… then again, maybe not.”

Her eyes hardened. “There might still be someone trapped there. We have to save them.”

“Yeah,” Leonid said. “I’d bet that’s exactly what they thought we’d decide.”

Katherine’s eyes snapped open wide in shock. “You mean…” She gritted her teeth. “Of course. This is a trap. What else would it be?”

For a few moments more, the two of them stared silently at the burning town. Every moment spent doing nothing was a moment wasted – every moment spent doing nothing was an additional moment the fire could claim another victim, another moment when someone that could’ve been saved could be lost. But… how were they supposed to do something quickly when they didn’t know what to do at all? After all, if Leonid was right… there was no good choice here.

Katherine looked sideways at him, and though Leonid knew she’d never admit it – and she’d do her best to hide it – he saw uncertainty in her expression. Uncertainty… and anxiety. “General Leonid… what do we do?”

Leonid gritted his teeth. “I’ll give them this… they’re bloody clever.” He sighed in frustration. “The worst part is, there’s probably no one in there. Why would they kill their own people like that? But…”

“If there are people trapped there…” Katherine said, finishing his thought. Her face was cloudy. Leonid knew she was thinking the same thing he was. “That isn’t a chance we can afford to take.”

Leonid nodded, tension evident in the motion. “I’ll go with a few of the men. Go ahead with the rest.”

Katherine frowned. She had to have known, Leonid knew. She had to have known exactly what he was thinking.

“And when they spring the trap?” she asked. “We cannot afford to lose you.”

“Would you trust the men to do as they should without a commander around?” Leonid asked. “It’s technically rebel territory, after all. And if we take more people to serve as a guard, that just increases how many people they can kill when they attack.”

Katherine gritted her teeth. “I… We lost Councillor Ihab already,” she said. “I won’t allow you to throw your life away on something like this.”

“Ugh… dammit,” Leonid muttered. “Katherine, be reasonable.”

“I am,” she said. “We cannot afford to lose you. Not over something like this.”

Leonid growled in frustration from between clenched teeth… but the worst part was, she was right. If one of the Generals fell here, then all tactical issues aside, what would it do to the army’s morale…?

And still the city burned, a constant, maddening reminder that with every moment he spent in thought, time passed. With every instant the two of them debated what to do, the fire raged. If there even were any people trapped inside, then the longer they stood here and did nothing, the more of them would die.

Leonid tried to shut that fact out from his thoughts, tried to just think logically, to keep his calm and to do what would be best. After all, if the Council fell, it wouldn’t matter what happened to one town. All of demonkind would be under the rebels’ rule, and who knew what would happen then? Surely, preventing that was more important than saving a single burning town.

And yet… and yet… who were they to decide something like that? Who were they to walk up to a town, to see it burning to ash in front of their eyes, to know they would easily be able to help, to imagine the cries of help and the prayers for salvation the inhabitants would surely be uttering – and do nothing? Who were they to decide those demons would be better off dead than under the rebels’ rule?

Leonid’s chest felt tight, so unbearably tight. He didn’t know what to do. He didn’t know what to do.

But… he knew one thing.

If he was in that town, at that moment… he’d want someone to save him.

They’d been standing around there for a few minutes, by now. More than enough time for the fire to have claimed another victim, for someone to have died because they valued some war over saving people’s lives, for their inaction to have killed someone, for someone’s death to rest on their shoulders…

Leonid arrested the train of thought before it could drive him too far off the path of reason.

But he couldn’t just leave them to die.

And he couldn’t waste any more time thinking about how to help them. If he spent too long doing that, it would all end up meaningless in any case.

“Never mind,” he growled, his throat tight with worry. It was entirely possible that his next decision would lose the war for the Council. But… he couldn’t not make it. “Never mind that, Katherine. Let’s go.”

He rushed forward, and his men rushed after him. A heartbeat later, Katherine and her contingent followed in his wake.

They didn’t need all their men to come with them. Of course they didn’t. But there just wasn’t time. There was no time to prepare, to figure out who would go and who wouldn’t. People were burning and dying now.

He’d had his plans. Katherine had had hers. This time, they hadn’t just charged blindly into the rebels’ territory – they’d had tactics and strategies to use, information about their enemy, backup plans in case the initial ones failed. Both of them had thought that they’d win easily – and that even if they didn’t, they’d at least give the rebels the fight of their lives. It had been foolproof.

And with a single trick, the rebels had torn it all to shreds.

If it had been some other sort of trick, Leonid would’ve been admittedly rather impressed that their plans had been undone so easily. As it was… he felt nothing more than a dark hatred for the rebels deep inside his gut.

He just hoped that maybe, maybe, the rebels were only expecting to trap a small contingent of the Council’s forces, and being faced with such a large amount of them would be more than they could handle. It was a long shot, admittedly. But… it was the only one he had.

It wasn’t long before Leonid heard the screams.

The instant he did, his heart leapt into his throat.

He’d already assumed that it would turn out the town was already empty – nothing more than a trap for the Council. He’d already assumed that even the rebels wouldn’t be willing to just kill their own people like that – that the town had been evacuated long before and they were simply betting that the Council would nevertheless be unable to simply pass it by. That was why he’d paid more attention to staying safe to sweeping the town quickly. Granted, he was still making all possible haste – but if he’d been certain someone really was in danger, he would’ve had his men look for whoever it was to the detriment of all else. As it stood, he and his troops were still moving in formation, weapons drawn, shields ready, and eyes and ears alert for any attack. He didn’t feel good about potentially taking such a risk with someone’s life, but… in the first place, the chance that there really was anyone at all in the town was nearly nonexistent. So this just made more sense.

Or at least… it had been nearly nonexistent.

The first time he heard it, it was barely audible over the background noise of the fire crackling and the buildings still collapsing here and there. It was nothing more than a small, soft garble of noise, barely distinguishable from the roar of the fire. It sent shivers down Leonid’s spine, but he paid it no mind. Yes, he’d been the one to decide on searching the town in the first place, but… surely the enemy wouldn’t actually burn their own people to death. Right…? It must have been just a trick of his ears.

The second time was a scream.

There were still no words to it. There could hardly be when the raging fire drowned out nearly all sound, and stone still fell and crumbled around them every few seconds. But there was no mistaking it. There was no mistaking that shrill, high-pitched sound – there was no mistaking the sheer, simple terror, the primal fear for one’s life, that that one noise contained.

At that, Leonid stopped, his jaw dropping slightly open, his breathing involuntarily stopping for just a moment. He looked around hastily, his eyes darting around the ruined city, trying to identify where the sound might have come from.

Finally, he heard it the third time.

“H-hey! Y-you, out there! H-help me, please! I don’t want to die!”

It should’ve been impossible for any words to carry over the noise of the fire. It should’ve been impossible to make oneself clear and understood in that sort of pandemonium, not from that far away.

But sometimes, the simplest of instincts – the desire everything alive had to live, to survive – could overcome even such things as impossible when they were in the way.

Leonid and Katherine had split up a while ago – it simply wasn’t practical to march their entire army through a single alleyway of the ruined city. He just hoped she’d heard it too.

As for him… there was only one thing he could do now.

“Men, spread out!” Leonid called. “Find whoever that was and get them out of the city as fast as you can!”

He darted further into the blaze, and behind him, he heard the sound of frantic footsteps as his men dashed in every direction, racing through every alley and street of the city. He was acutely aware that now, if the enemy attacked, they were virtually guaranteed to take heavy losses.

But all his men had volunteered to serve the Council’s army, to put their lives at risk. Whoever was trapped in this fire… Leonid was damn sure they hadn’t volunteered for anything.

Katherine froze in her tracks, trying to make out the source of the scream. But it was impossible. Over this fire, over the sound of rubble falling and of buildings collapsing, it was a miracle she’d heard it in the first place. And now that she had, there was only one thing left to do.

“Spread out, men!” she barked. “There’s a survivor! Get them out of here!”

Without waiting for a response, she, herself, dashed into the burning city.

Really, she should have known. She should’ve known the rebels would do something like this. Why wouldn’t they? They’d spat in the face of the Council, the very Council that had overthrown the old tyrant and given them their lives and safety in the first place. They’d allied with mortals, the very same mortals who had killed more demons than could be counted and who had always stood in the way of the Council’s dream. And they’d… they’d…

They’d killed

killed

They’d killed Councillor Ihab.

…no, perhaps it was irrational to blame them for that one. That was the nature of war, after all. He’d been their enemy. And besides… he must’ve known something like that would happen one day or another. Katherine thought… she thought it was how he’d have wanted to die.

But the rest of it still stood. The rebels… they’d never shown any concern or respect for anyone’s life before. Why would they start now? Even if that anyone was their very own citizens…

So of course they’d do something like this. It was the best way to lure the Council’s forces into an area where they could easily be ambushed, after all. What was happening now was proof of it. And if a few of their civilians died because of it… well, what did it matter to them? To Katherine, such casual disregard for demons’ lives seemed unbelievable, but… to the rebels, surely it would seem like a perfectly good idea.

And it was an idea that left them with no choice but to walk directly into an ambush. With that in mind, there was only one thing left to wonder…

Where was the enemy?

The trap hadn’t been sprung yet, which meant the rebels were waiting for something. Which meant Katherine and Leonid had at least a bit of time left. Would they be able to find any survivors and get out in that span of time? It wasn’t impossible. But Katherine didn’t think it was probable.

But that didn’t matter. She would still try to do it. After all, she was not going to leave even a single demon here to die if she could help it. And she wouldn’t lose to the rebels, either. And if accomplishing both goals at once seemed like an impossibility… well, as much as she hated to admit it, the rebels had overcome seemingly impossible situations before. So what reason was there the Council wouldn’t be able to do the same?

Leonid dashed forwards, running through the burning alley with just a tiny contingent of his men – ten or so people who’d gone in the same general direction as him (he was too frantic at the moment to count properly) – to protect him in the event something went wrong. Though then again, he supposed it wouldn’t matter. If something went wrong, they’d have to gather the troops together anyway – otherwise, they’d have no chance. It wouldn’t be easy in this sort of chaos, but then again, he supposed the rebels’ own attack could end up pressing them into one area anyway when the time came. It wouldn’t be good, but-

He stopped short, quickly gesturing to his men to do the same. They decelerated to a halt beside him.

He smelled blood.

Perhaps one would think that, being a General with many years of experience on the battlefield, he would be desensitized to the smell. In a way, he supposed, that was true. It spoke volumes by itself that the smell didn’t bother him, as such. He certainly found it unpleasant, yes, but it didn’t disturb him as it would most people anymore.

But no matter how little it bothered him, no matter how used he grew to the stench, it was something one never stopped noticing. No matter how often one was near it, no matter how used one was to it… none of it mattered. The smell of blood, the smell of death, was never something that could simply be overlooked. Even after Leonid had grown used to it, even in the middle of this burned city that smelled of smoke and flame, that fact remained true. The smell of spilled blood stuck out like a sore thumb.

He looked at what lay ahead of him. There, the road curved at a right angle, turning a corner to his right. It was impossible not to realize that that was where the smell was coming from.

Cautiously, Leonid stepped closer to the wall of a building – not actually touching it, of course, not when the town was burning, but close enough to at least hopefully offer him some measure of concealment – and looked around the corner.

Corpses lay there. Corpses of the Council’s soldiers. Four in total – one had had his throat slashed, two had been impaled through weak points in their armor, and one that looked to have been bludgeoned to death. The way they’d fallen, it looked like two of them had died before being able to offer any resistance at all. He was less sure about the other two, but it looked like they’d at least struggled for a bit before being slain.

And yet, all the blood on the ground was their own. They hadn’t hurt their assailants, whoever they were.

And those assailants… they had to have taken them by surprise, to kill them so efficiently. Leonid hadn’t even heard them scream, a testament to how quickly the slaughter had taken place. And there had to be multiple – a single person could not possibly kill four soldiers so quickly, no matter how much of an advantage stealth granted them.

And that meant a mobile group was unlikely – it wasn’t easy for multiple people at once to move about undetected, especially in an area as brightly lit as the town currently was. So, most likely, they’d been hiding out here, waiting for someone to attack… or at least, that’s the conclusion Leonid would normally have come to. But this was a burning town. What madmen would try to wait in ambush in a place like-

No.

No. They hadn’t been waiting in ambush.

There was a far simpler explanation.

Leonid’s throat suddenly felt very, very dry.

“That man…” he whispered to himself.

The trio ran through an alley. The head of the group, a chirean, looked at the two people following her. She didn’t know either of them, but they’d both decided to go the same way she had, and she was fine with it. Just from what she’d observed of them, they both clearly wanted to save whoever was trapped here just as much as she did. That was enough for her.

There was a sound like a blade cutting flesh, and the chirean’s eyes widened in sudden surprise – but before she could react, another followed on its heels. The chirean let out a gasp of shock and turned around. The enemy? But… they couldn’t be here yet. Could they?

She saw two demons, short blades in hand, standing in the alley. At their feet, the two people following her were dead – and the blades were bloodied.

For a moment, sudden fear registered in her mind. She hastily brought her sword into position, looking nervously at the two demons. How had they-

There was a flash of blue in the corner of her eye.

And a moment later, there was a blade of cool steel through her heart.

The group appeared again.

Two of the enemy soldiers died in instants, killed by blades from behind before they could even notice the intruders, much less react. Of the other two, one of them turned hastily, his sword at the ready – but before he could, Melthar appeared behind him and skewered him with a quick thrust. The blade had been enchanted by Lein – another of his parting gifts – so there was no need to even aim for a weak spot. It simply pierced the enemy’s armor almost like it didn’t even exist.

Melthar rushed at the fourth one, sword in hand. There were a few flashes of light on steel, blades moving in quick, practiced motions – and then, Melthar sliced once and stepped back, and the demon fell dead.

Against an opponent who had had literal eternity to practice his swordsmanship, there was quite little that could really be done. Well, Melthar mused… except by the truly exceptional. Janus, for instance, was his superior in a direct swordfight.

But these demons… they couldn’t even come close.

“Well done, men,” Melthar nodded, trying to keep his voice down. It wasn’t like being discovered was a threat to them, but there was still no reason to advertise their position. “Unfortunately, I’m not doing that great myself anymore. As I’ve said… I can’t teleport too much in too short a timeframe.”

One of the demons nodded. “Right. So, we’re leaving?”

“It’d seem so,” Melthar said. “In any case, it should be nearly time for the main event by now.”

“Very well,” the demon nodded. Melthar stepped up to them, placed a hand on their shoulders – it wasn’t necessary, but it did make it easier – and, in the blink of an eye, they stood outside the burning city.

Melthar turned his head to the right. He’d had his problems with the plan from the start, and he still did, but he had to admit one thing… it had done its job, and it had done it well. The Council’s forces were still inside the burning town…

And, to the north, he could see Azal’s men approaching, already nearly at the site of battle.

“Well,” Melthar smiled. “Time to go meet up with the men.”

He took off at a sprint towards the approaching army, and the two demons followed him.

Leonid closed his eyes for a moment. He steadied his breathing, forced the fear out of his mind, and tried his best to make himself stop shaking. Only then did he dare open his eyes again and step around the corner, to where his men were gathered in the centre of the town.

It hadn’t been easy to gather them all together here in the first place. In fact, Leonid had to assume that at least some of them were still out there in the town somewhere… but at the very least, the vast majority of his fighters had been assembled here.

He traded a silent look with General Katherine and stepped into the midst of the army, where they wouldn’t be able to be easily recognized. That was important. After all, not being recognized was the only way they could avoid the golden man’s wrath.

He took a deep breath.

“Men,” he said. “The rebels have proven cleverer than we expected. But they have shown something else to us too, this day. They have revealed themselves for who they really are – cowards and traitors. Traitors to the Council… and traitors to their own people.”

“You see what is happening here,” General Katherine said. Leonid looked at her in surprise for a moment, but he didn’t object. She’d probably be able to get the point across better than he could anyway. “You see what these rebels have done. They have destroyed their own lands, consigned their own people to death – and for what? Merely so that they could avoid fighting fairly. Now, look around at this town and think about what you see. Do you want to live under the rule of a ruler like that? Do you want to live knowing that, at any time, you could be sacrificed by the will of the ruler, and no one would speak out against it? Do you want to live knowing that your life is the king’s to spend as he sees fit?

“No? Then make your stand, men. We are trapped – if we do not move, we will be encircled, and the rebels will not allow us to move. But will we allow that to stop us? This is what you have prepared for, men. The golden man has made his move, and he has surely exhausted himself in the process. The rebels approach, surely fast on the heels of his attack – but you have seen them for what they truly are. They are monsters, monsters and cowards. You have seen what they have done, so ask yourself one thing: Could you live with yourself knowing that you could have stopped them here, and di not? And also… do you understand that if you fail here, this will be the fate of all demonkind?

“Men… you may think we are doomed. But I assure you, we will not be broken so easily. So I urge you – stand and fight. Stand and fight against this tide of monstrosity, against these traitors who wish to destroy all that we have worked so hard to build. Stand firm, and do not retreat. This day is when the fate of demonkind will be decided… and when the smoke clears, we will be the ones standing at the helm.

“And do not fear. It may seem impossible. It may seem like this is a battle we cannot win. But if there is one thing I can say with certainty, it is this: I will never surrender, and I will never give up. Do not think it is hopeless. I assure you of one thing – I still have more than a few tricks in reserve. And I will – no, we will win this battle yet.”

There were a few moments of silence. Katherine, Leonid had to admit, had never been among the most charismatic of people. But her conviction was strong and true, and she was always confident, no matter what happened. In a situation like this… perhaps that would be all that would be required.

There was no sudden cheer, no cries or chants of triumph or excitement. But the silence took on a new quality. Until now, there had been a few slight, background sounds constantly audible among the men – feet shifting anxiously, soldiers swallowing nervously, a few people fidgeting to keep the worry at bay. Now, those were gone. It was a solid, unbroken silence, a perfect stillness like cold steel.

The army was ready for war.

Azal frowned as he marched onwards, approaching the town. The sound of heavy footsteps, of armored feet striking the ground, filled his ears and made them ring, but he tried to keep his thoughts clear nevertheless. It wasn’t overly difficult.

Melthar had gotten back to them just a bit ago. It seemed they’d misjudged the timing a bit, and the enemy army had arrived earlier than the Bloodhorns had expected. Still, Azal had planned for the worst possible scenario, so it didn’t matter too much. Their army had had a bit longer to march to get to the town than he’d have liked, but thankfully, according to Melthar’s report, the enemy was still inside. That was enough.

Still, he would need to make his move soon. If they hadn’t already suspected it was an ambush (which was unlikely), Melthar’s attack would surely have told them as much, so they would surely try to get out. That would be the only reasonably move in their position – and it wouldn’t take them long. Azal expected they would insist on staying in formation as they did, but even then, it would not take them long to escape the town.

Fortunately, that wouldn’t matter too much. After all, they were already in range for the next step of Azal’s plan.

Melthar’s string of assassinations hadn’t really been meant to inflict actual significant losses. They were meant to harm morale. If every enemy soldier knew that, as long as he remained with the army, there was a possibility he would be next – there was a possibility he would be killed without the chance to so much as see it coming, much less defend against it – Azal doubted they would be able to fight anywhere nearly as confidently as otherwise.

However, that had only been the first part of the plan. Now, it was time to start the true battle.

Azal turned to the person at his side. “Alexander?”

Alexander turned towards him, a smile on his face. “Yes, Azal?”

“It’s time.”

Alexander smiled, turned, and extended a hand. And the burning town exploded into light.

The theory of it was simple. Mages were rare, and rarer still among demons – but Alexander was one of the very, very few people in existence who was not only a mage, but had enough power for it to be useful on a battlefield. And yet no matter the power of the mage, no matter what sort of being the mage was, there was always a single method of attack that was preferred – sheer, raw force. In the chaos of a battle, where speed was everything, nothing could beat that sort of simplicity.

In this case, it wasn’t quite in the midst of a battle, and speed wasn’t necessarily of the essence. But that simplest of all spells would still be more than sufficient.

Alexander’s magic forced a wide sheet of air forward, enveloping the entire town in a gale wind – a roaring current of air that fanned the flames, bringing the dying fire back to its full, deadly intensity. The rising tendrils of flame twisted and writhed, bent by the unrelenting force of the wind, until, like the breath of a great dragon, the fire blew to the south, reaching tendrils of some great fiery beast. The fire that had been starting to stagnate began once more to devour the town, tearing through the buildings like a tiger ripping into its prey.

And then, Alexander thrust his palm upwards, and the wind stopped – and instead, the air over the town began to turn and swirl, a slow cycle at first, but rapidly accelerating until, soon, the air became a great cyclone of fire, spreading the flames faster and faster, lighting the entire town aflame anew.

The cyclone dispersed as suddenly as it had appeared, and Alexander dropped to his knees, gasping for breath. Azal turned to him.

“That took a bit out of me,” the angel panted. “Still… not bad, Azal. That was a clever idea.” He looked at Azal (or, at least, so Azal figured – it was difficult to tell when he didn’t have any eyes). “I’m afraid I can’t be much more help. You can do the rest on your own, right?”

“Indeed,” Azal nodded. “Thank you, Alexander.”

He set his sights on the blazing town. It was time.

Time to decide this war.

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Chapter 36: Storm of the Apocalypse Brewing

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Azal looked at the army that was now prepared to set out for his cause.

Melthar’s excursion into Sagnir had helped, no doubt about that. Like the old Baron had had his own men to defend his city, independent of the Council’s army, many of the landed nobility in the human nations had their own forces to call on – and Melthar had… “convinced”… many of them to use those forces for the rebellion’s good. In fact, the result was better than what Azal had dared expect… though, unfortunately, still less than he would’ve hoped for. Religious fervor drove the common folk to do many seemingly insane things, but when it came to the nobility, with their politics and their own interests, the notion of religion suddenly seemed much less important. Even with Melthar’s entrance, which had, by all accounts (granted, the only account Azal had heard was Melthar’s own), been dazzling, far from all who had heard him had decided to actually do as he’d told them… and of those who had, precious few had the sort of power at their disposal to truly make a difference.

It didn’t help, either, that Sagnir was the country that Melthar had gone to. Azal had had his reasons for picking it, of course – from the things he’d heard from Ian and the Sagnirian troops under his command, and from the letters that had occasionally been exchanged between him and Queen Lily, he felt that he had a picture of Sagnir as a nation that, while not complete, was still far greater than his understanding of any other mortal nation, which meant that he could at least be reasonably certain such a stunt would work there to at least some degree. That wasn’t something he’d have any guarantee of if he’d picked one of the other nations of Verta.

But Queen Lily was not a ruler who was particularly comfortable with the thought of her nobles having the means to rise up against her, and it showed in her policy. Of course, she hadn’t prevented them from having their own men altogether – that would’ve stirred up more than enough dissent to start a rebellion then and there. But she’d sharply limited how many troops they could have, so that many of the nobles had barely enough men to even be noticeable among the Bloodhorns’ own soldiers – and those few that were allowed more troops than the rest were the people Queen Lily particularly trusted, and those were a sort of people who would never be swayed by Melthar’s speech.

Still, it had gone decently. Even if each of the individual nobles had had rather little to contribute, it wasn’t as if the Bloodhorns’ army was enormous, so even a relatively small contribution was good – and Melthar had managed to get quite a few of them to agree to help. Were the Bloodhorns still outnumbered? Certainly, and Azal saw no way that that would change… but at the very least, they weren’t outnumbered by such a large margin anymore. The chirean still saw no reason to give the  Council a fair fight, but if he was forced into one, his men would at least be able to give them a challenge.

Of course, if he were to have his way, that wouldn’t happen. Though, as of yet, Azal had no military victories to truly attribute to himself – the first few clashes of the rebellion could hardly be called “military” operations, and the two true battles they’d faced so far had been won by, respectively, Ian’s reinforcements and Janus’ duel with Ihab – there was still one thing he knew for sure: this next battle would not be one he would win by fighting fairly.

And he had no intention of doing so. Nor, like when Katherine had first come to the city, did he have any intention of simply trying to defend himself against the Council’s assault. And neither did he plan on using a single, easily-beatable trick like the one he’d tried at the start of the second battle, when Ian had tried – and spectacularly failed – to lure the Council’s forces to the mountains.

This time, he wasn’t going to have another near-defeat, another battle won only by the skin of his teeth. This time, he would take the fight to the Council. This time, as he’d told Alexander before, he had a plan.

And he was intent on making it work.

“Then we are prepared,” General Katherine said grimly, a cold flame burning in her eyes. “It is time.”

“Yes,” Leonid nodded. It was time. It was time for them to march forwards, to pit demon against demon, to force kin to fight kin. It was time to throw away his men’s lives once more at the Council’s behest – and to litter the ground with the corpses of fellow demons who happened to think differently from them.

And the worst part was, Leonid couldn’t disagree with the course of action. It wasn’t like usual, when he could tell himself that he was only following the Council’s orders – that he was only doing this because, if it were someone else, he’d have no guarantee they would try to save as many lives as possible as he would. This time, even he knew it was necessary.

And that thought stung more than any of the others. He would force fellow demons to kill each other, make people who might have otherwise been friends murder each other in cold blood. And he approved. Because if he didn’t – if the rebels were allowed to have their way – he knew it could so, so easily be worse.

But… General Katherine didn’t need to hear any of that. She was… different from him, fundamentally so. Leonid had always been loyal to the Council – but that was all he had ever been. Loyal to them. Nothing more than that. He had never claimed to approve of all they did, never believed that they were the greatest rulers he could hope for. He merely felt grateful that they had defeated the old king… and afraid that any other ruler would be worse. Katherine… Katherine was different.

Leonid thought her a fool, in most circumstances. He had never liked how she nearly worshipped the Council, how she refused to believe that anything they did could ever be wrong. But in this case, he couldn’t help but envy her. He knew that right now, she wasn’t asking herself any of the same painful questions he was. There was just one thought in her mind – that she would destroy the rebels and eliminate the greatest threat to her lords in all of history. Leonid wished it could be that simple for him.

But it wasn’t. It was for Katherine, but it wasn’t for him. And there was no changing that. So there was no point telling Katherine about any of the questions that tormented his mind. It would only reduce morale… and knowing what the rebels had already done, Leonid had a feeling that they would need every advantage that they could get.

“Let us go,” Katherine said, and Leonid nodded back at her in agreement. The army continued its march, and Leonid knew that there would be no more rest until the rebels were annihilated.

Though, even then… could there truly be any rest after that?

T-they! They…!

They’d killed Councillor Ihab.

They’d killed him, they’d murdered him in cold blood because he stood in their way, they’d murdered him as repayment for his courage, his bravery. They’d killed him, and now Katherine would never see him again. She’d never hear his encouragements again, never fight by his side again, never encounter that twisted sense of humor of his again. (She’d always thought she’d hated it before, but now… now that she’d never hear it again…) She’d never talk to him again. Never so much as hear his voice again. Never hear him say that she was doing great, and that he was so grateful for her loyalty, and that he thought she was an excellent commander, and that he knew she was one of the Council’s greatest servants, and, and… and…

Never. Never, never, never, never, never. Never again. Never again would she see him. Never again would the Council be whole. The people she had worked for her entire life, the people whose dream was their only chance of one day being free… they had suffered a loss. And never would they recover from it. Never, never, never would Councillor Ihab be there again, never would he give them that perspective that was so unique, that they so needed. Never would he lead his armies into battle once more, never would he experience life’s joys and sorrows and surprises again. Never.

That was right. It went beyond her, didn’t it? It went beyond her. She hadn’t just failed. The price for her failure wasn’t just that she’d never see Councillor Ihab again. She’d failed him, he was dead because of her, because she’d failed to destroy the rebels, because she’d run away like a coward – no, not like a coward; after that, she was a coward, she couldn’t call herself anything else – because she hadn’t been strong enough, hadn’t been brave enough, hadn’t made the right choices, and if only, if only she could go back and change things, she wouldn’t leave him, she’d stay with him to the bitter end, and she’d save him if it meant she’d have to fight alone against a horde of rebels, even if it meant she’d have to throw her own life away…

But that was impossible.

She couldn’t change things. It couldn’t be done. What had happened had happened. And it had been her fault. And now… and now, if the Council was overthrown, if the rebels replaced them and demonkind had to live in misery for all eternity… it would all be her fault. Because she’d been so stupid, so, so stupid

It would be her fault. It already was her fault. All of the things that had happened up to now, Councillor Ihab’s death, the territories to the north falling to the rebels – they were all her fault. But… but it was someone else’s fault, too.

The rebels. It was their fault just as much as hers, wasn’t it?

She could never change what she’d done, she knew. But at the very least… even if she could never absolve herself of her sin… at least she could make the other people responsible pay for it.

…that had been then.

Now, it was a bit different. That deadly specter tearing apart Katherine’s heart from inside, that crushing, unbearable guilt at having failed them all so badly… she’d felt like it would never leave her. But it had. In a way, that was the worst thing. She knew she should’ve still been feeling guilty, she knew it should’ve still been tearing her to shreds inside, but… but… it wasn’t. It was as if her heart had forgotten them, as if she just didn’t care about the Council or Ihab anymore. That… that wasn’t true, though, was it? How… how could it be true…?

But perhaps, she thought… perhaps it wasn’t that. Perhaps it wasn’t that her scars had faded because she’d stopped caring, or because her heart had grown dark and too weary to think about all of that anymore. Perhaps… perhaps it had simply been time. After all… time could heal even the gravest of wounds, could it not? So she hadn’t stopped caring. She still cared. They still lived on in her heart, all of them. Councillor Ihab… and all the others, the others who had given their lives to stop the rebels. She would never forget them, never dishonor their memory.

It was simply that time had given her a clearer perspective. She… she still blamed herself for what had happened to them. She still didn’t know how, exactly, Ihab had died (the army, when it had come back, had been strangely silent on that subject – as well as why they had withdrawn), but… she was certain that if she’d been here for him, she could’ve saved him. But that didn’t matter anymore. She couldn’t change the past… but she could still change the future. Sitting and moping about all that had happened wouldn’t do anyone any good. But there was still much to be done – still much she could do.

Ihab had given his life fighting the rebels. And she would carry on his fight.

Ian sat alone in the manor he’d been given for his stay in Aead – a house that had originally belonged to a wealthy nobleman before he had tried to start his own revolution to overthrow the Bloodhorns and bring the Council’s rule back to Redgate. The noble had been planning to assassinate Azal, the leader of the Bloodhorns, before Aya had discovered his plans (Ian was one of the few who actually knew that part – Aya’s very existence was still being kept a secret from most, presumably to keep the Council from realizing the Bloodhorns had a shadow on their side). At that point, he’d been caught, arrested, tried, and… well, what had happened to him after that, Azal had never told anyone. But Ian felt he had a rather good idea. After all, Azal wasn’t one to be merciful when he didn’t have to be.

On that, at least, he felt he could agree with the demon. Ian had never considered himself a cruel person, but he had always been of the opinion that mercy was a pointless concept. If one had decided to retaliate against someone, it meant that person had done something. So why would their pleas have any influence on the outcome? And if one had already decided to harm another, what would be the reason for holding back how much harm was inflicted?

Ian had never seen the point of mercy.

Still, he had to admit it was useful. Sometimes, displaying it could do more for your popularity than years of propaganda or speeches or generosity or anything else. People were… curious creatures, and Ian did not claim to understand them. But he was perfectly willing to use them.

And that led him to what was his true concern at the moment.

The battle was fast approaching – the battle that, if everyone was right, would be the last major one of this war. The Council was bringing all its forces to bear, and whoever won, it would be unlikely the losing side would be able to escape having the vast majority of its manpower destroyed. This battle would be the last obstacle they would have to overcome – the last challenge they would have to face. If they won, the war was as good as won.

And that meant it was the last point of chaos that the Bloodhorns would encounter before they reached their goal.

Ian had played the game carefully. He hadn’t intended to be quite so cautious about it, not at the beginning. But as he’d observed Azal, he’d seen that the demon was far from the inexperienced, foolish novice Ian had imagined he would be. Inexperienced, perhaps – but certainly far from foolish. It had not been long before Ian had realized that it was more likely than not that Azal knew exactly what he was plotting.

That was troublesome. Ian had seen what Azal was like. The chirean was not a man to give up power easily. He wouldn’t allow Ian to take the reins, not if he could help it. And Ian had realized that much – and he’d realized that, now that Azal knew what he was planning, all it would take would be a single wrong move to throw his entire plan into jeopardy.

That was why he’d been so careful, why he’d been as loyal as he possibly could until it was time to strike. Azal would interpret any odd behavior as an indication that he was about to make his move – and once that happened, Ian knew he would be in great danger. When he’d first come to Aead to aid the rebellion, he would never have imagined Azal to be someone who’d stand a chance of outmaneuvering him in the game of politics… but since then, his perspective had changed somewhat. He knew the chirean would not kill him for no reason – he knew the chirean could not kill him for no reason, not when his rebellion depended on him having the support of the people. But how hard would it really be for him to invent a reason…?

He had a suspicion Azal would, in fact, not find it difficult at all.

And that was why Ian hadn’t done anything suspicious until now. Because he knew that the moment he struck, he needed to win the game, then and there.

If he succeeded, he could end up the ruler of all of demonkind… but that was an if. And if he failed, he would be dead, whatever else happened.

He’d been in correspondence with Lily, of course. At first, he’d planned to try and convince her that the rebel leader was inexperienced, someone who couldn’t be trusted to lead the demons, someone who would have to be replaced – replaced by someone like him. If he could get the Queen’s support for his coup d’état, it would all be effectively over. The rebels did not have the manpower to stand up to the forces of Sagnir – and neither did the Council. He would be able to win the war on his own and lead demonkind, just as he’d planned.

But as they’d spoken, he’d realized that the circumstances were somewhat… different than he had imagined. Namely, though he still didn’t know why Lily had chosen to support the rebellion in the first place, it was clear she didn’t really care about it. Whatever happened to it, she wouldn’t be particularly upset. And that made that plan obsolete.

Still, he’d kept talking to her. He knew he wouldn’t be able to get the men to just overthrow the rebel leader, but… perhaps he could still get something else.

Eventually, she’d clearly gotten fed up with him (and it was just as clear she was more observant than he’d given her credit for), because one day, he’d received the following letter:

Ian,

Look, I get it. You want to overthrow the rebel leader and take control. Okay. Go on. I’m not going to help you. But I’m not going to stop you either. Do whatever you feel like.

Just stop pestering me with your bloody letters, okay?

Lily

…he had to admit, though his gut reaction at the… unrefined quality… of the letter had been a sort of distaste, there was a certain amount of appeal to it.

Still, that was good. He wouldn’t be getting his men… but at least he knew the Queen didn’t disapprove of his plan. Which meant he was free to act.

And that brought him back to what he’d been thinking about initially. When would he make his move?

Until now, he’d been playing the game carefully. But that had been up until now. He knew that, no matter what, one constant was always going to be true – his best chance to obtain what he wanted would be during times of chaos. And there was a time of chaos coming up – but it would be the last one. It would be his last good chance.

And that meant that he had to act, caution be damned.

One way or another, he would claim power for himself. And the easiest way to do so…

…would be by first removing the one who currently held power.

Azal stared out the window.

He knew the Council’s army was approaching. Since Melthar had returned, he’d had him check on their progress – and the news he’d received merely confirmed what he’d already suspected. They didn’t have any time left. The enemy would be here within the week.

This time, however… Azal’s plan was too important to trust to one of his underlings.

He had never liked the thought of heading out to lead his army on his own. It presented an unacceptable risk to himself. If one of his subordinates were to be captured or killed, the Bloodhorns could still survive – but if that were to happen to him, the rest of the rebellion would likely fall apart on the spot. He could not put himself at risk – it was far too much of a danger to the Bloodhorns.

But that was under normal circumstances. These circumstances were far from normal. This battle would decide everything, one way or another. That meant the risk of the army losing with him at the helm was no greater than the risk of the army losing with someone else at the helm. The Bloodhorns would collapse soon in either case.

And if that was true… then there was no reason not to do everything possible to win this fight, was there?

Yes… this time, Azal would go out to head his army himself.

And he would win.

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Chapter 35: Light the Torch

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“Have you heard?” the descendant said, arms folded primly behind his back. He leaned against a wall made of sturdy black stone, careful to try and make sure his clothing wouldn’t get too dirty.

“About what?” the other descendant near him asked, a slight chuckle in his voice. This one was blond in contrast to the other’s brown hair, and he was somewhat taller – but in terms of bearing, and in terms of the apparel they wore, they could have been mirror images of each other. “The “unrest” in the Council? Pfft. You know that’s not true, right? The old buggers haven’t had anything to worry about for centuries now. Why would that change all of a sudden?”

“I’m telling you, Bernard, it’s true,” the other descendant said tersely. “Troops don’t move for no reason, especially not this many. I did the math – they’d essentially have to abandon their operations on Verta entirely just to gather the men for such a move! And you’re telling me there isn’t something going on?”

“Oh, you know how the Council is,” the blond one – Bernard – said. “Come on. You know they keep chasing after that one surprise attack that’ll let them get to a Portal when it just happens to be undefended. Never gonna happen, but that ain’t going to stop them from trying. Guess this time, they just thought one of the northern ones would be their lucky choice.”

“No, Bernard!” the other man snapped in frustration. “I’ve heard tales of it, you know! You know, those men that came back a while ago? I’ve been keeping my ears open, you know. They’ve been told not to tell anyone what they were doing, I can tell they were, but I can see right through them! And you know what I’m telling you? There’s a rebellion, Bernard! That’s the only thing that makes sense! There’s a rebellion somewhere in the North, and the Council’s scared for their lives – and trying to keep us blind to it all the while!”

“Tsk. Yeah, sure,” Bernard smiled, rolling his eyes. “Next you’re going to tell me you think those rumors about a “contingency” are true, too?”

“You think they aren’t?” the brown-haired one said, his voice sounding like it had been a personal insult. “Of course the Council’s got something up its sleeve!  And the only thing that makes sense-“

“Look, this conversation’s over,” the blond descendant said. “You can believe whatever crazy stuff you feel like. I’m leaving.” And with that, he strode off into the alleyways of the city.

And somewhere nearby, an aeadite stood and listened with a smile on his face, and thought, Damn. It ended just before the good part.

“…so anyway, that’s how things are now,” Melthar said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Honestly, when you think about it, it’s a bit pathetic, but… eh. Believe it or not, my dignity’s survived worse things. Please don’t ask what.”

The priest listened with genuine curiosity in his eyes. It’d taken Melthar an annoyingly long while to convince him to just treat him like a normal person, but he achieved it in what he was just about certain was a shorter amount of time than he would’ve gotten with nearly anyone else, so he was happy with it anyways. And now that he had gotten to that point, Melthar had to admit it felt pretty good to just have someone to talk to. After all, when one thought about it for a moment, his life in recent times had been pretty freaking insane, hadn’t it? So it was nice to just have someone to offload it all onto. Sure, it wouldn’t actually help matters… like… at all, but at least talking about it made him feel a bit better about things.

“Ah… Sir Melthar, I have a few questions for you,” the priest said.

“Go ahead,” Melthar said.

“Then, this Archdemon you spoke of… he is the same that the Cult of the Burning Eye worships?” the priest asked.

“I mean, I can’t be entirely sure,” Melthar said. “But I literally can’t think of any other possibility that makes sense, so I’d say it’s pretty likely.”

“And the Archdemon, he…”

“…was once a Great Power,” Melthar shrugged. “Actually, no, that’s not quite right. He still is one. Just because the rest of us cut all ties with him doesn’t change what he is.” He waved a hand in a vague gesture. “We kept that secret for the longest time, and honestly, in hindsight, I don’t have a freaking clue why we did it. I guess we thought it’d lead to panic if people knew it? But we were keeping it secret even from people who already knew the Archdemon existed… I guess I probably just didn’t want to discuss it. He was a friend once, after all.”

“And… Sir Lein…”

For just a moment, Melthar’s gaze changed. He looked out into the distance, but it was not a normal gaze – rather, it was a stare that seemed to stretch past the church’s walls, that looked at nothing in particular but that somehow seemed to go on forever, like a desperate hand extended to the Spirit Realm. But it was only for a moment, and then his face settled back into his usual expression.

“Dead. Yeah,” Melthar said. “Honestly, I didn’t expect the Archdemon to have grown that powerful while he was sealed up. When the demons overthrew him, we let them seal him away, and we even helped out a bit… but now, I wonder if it would’ve been better to insist we just kill him. Actually, now that I think about it, why did the demons decide to seal him away in the first place? They could’ve just killed him, unless…” Melthar blinked, a sudden realization coming to him. “Oh. Oh, shit.”

“W-what is it?” Robert asked, biting his lip nervously.

“Nothing you need to be concerned about.” Melthar dismissed the question with a wave of his hand. “Well, in any case… there’s a reason I came here. It’s not the time for me to get distracted thinking about possibilities.”

“What is it, then?” Robert asked.

“See… about that rebellion I told you about,” Melthar began. “You might think that because I’ve sided with it, it’s impossible for it to fail. Sadly, that’s not true. Whatever the stories say, my power isn’t infinite, and neither is my energy. I can kill people fairly easily if I need to, but after a relatively short while of doing that, I’m going to get exhausted. And that means that against an entire army, I’m not actually all that powerful myself.

“And therein lies the issue. The fact is, the rebellion down in Aead isn’t in a great position right now. They’re facing an enemy far more powerful than themselves, an enemy that has now chosen to dedicate itself fully to their destruction – and they just don’t have the manpower to stand up against them in a direct fight, whether or not I’m helping them. Divine intervention’s nice and all, but it turns out it isn’t quite all it’s made out to be.

“So that’s why I’m here. The rebellion needs men, and as much as I can’t entirely say I like it, I am the god worshipped by more or less everyone in this kingdom. It may be a bit distasteful, but… if I use that reputation, it shouldn’t be hard for me to find allies among the nobles here. Or, perhaps, I might even be able to convince the Queen herself to provide some more help… though somehow, I doubt that.”

“I see,” Robert nodded. “Then, what must I do?”

“Honestly? For now, nothing,” Melthar said. “Really, it’s… it’s been a while since I’ve exposed myself to the public eye, to say the least. I guess I just came here because I thought it would make me feel a bit better about it if I could talk to someone first.” He tilted his head slightly in a somewhat amused gesture. “And, you know what? It did. Thanks, Robert.”

“You’re welcome, Sir Melthar,” Robert nodded.

Melthar nodded and rose from the bench. “Right then. I’ll get back to you if I need something, but for now… I guess it’s time to get on with my mission, hmm?”

A knock rang out on the door to Azal’s chamber at the top of the tower. With a small sigh, Azal rose and opened the door, letting the visitor in.

Alexander walked into the room and, before Azal could stop him, sat down on Azal’s chair. “Hey, Azal.”

Azal closed his eyes and shook his head disapprovingly, but he somehow doubted he was going to get the angel to get off the chair. Instead, he just closed the door and leaned against the wall.

A small smile appeared on Alexander’s face. “Mm, mm, mm… really now, Azal? Too proud to use the chair you offer everyone else?”

“It’s a situation I would not have been in if not for your insistence on showmanship,” Azal scowled.

“Look, I’m just saying,” Alexander said, his expression turning to a frown briefly. “If you’re not willing to even use the same things those lower down use… what does that really say about you as a leader?”

“I have the impression you did not come here to discuss that,” Azal said.

“Hmph… well, yes, I haven’t,” Alexander admitted. “But it’s something to keep in mind, Azal. I’ve seen it happen before, you know. People start something for a good cause, and somehow, before anyone even realizes, it ends up just being an attempt to seize power. But anyway… you’re right. That’s not what I’m here to talk about.”

“Then why are you here?” Azal asked. “Military matters, I suppose.”

“Yeah,” Alexander nodded. “I’ll be blunt here: we’ve got a tough fight ahead of us. We win it, and we’ve got a pretty good chance to secure victory in the entire war right then and there. We lose, and… we’re doomed. Either way, there’s not going to be a second chance. So we’ve got to win this, one way or another.”

“And why did you feel the need to talk to me about this privately?” Azal asked, though he felt he already knew the answer. “Surely Lord Sabrin would also have been able to contribute, were he here.”

“I’m not denying that man’s military acumen,” Alexander said. “But he’s a treacherous snake. I’d say “Surely you’ve realized it by now” or something like that, but… I’m sure you did, right?”

Azal frowned. If he was overheard agreeing to something like that, it would not look good… and if word of Azal speaking out against him so directly got to Ian, all sorts of consequences could emerge. But as far as he knew, this chamber was rather secure, and the only person who could get into it without his permission – Melthar – was currently away, and besides, he probably didn’t have a much better opinion of Ian anyway. And Alexander had a point. Ian was going to do something sooner or later, and Azal had to be prepared for it when he did.

Azal nodded tightly.

“Right,” Alexander said. “I guess you never confronted him about it because you needed his men. Right?”

“And besides, as long as he is involved with the Bloodhorns so directly, he will not want the rebellion to fail,” Azal said. “If the Council wins this war, then at the very least, he will not get what he wishes for – and it is entirely possible he will face worse consequences, too. He has no reason to betray us, not when it might lead to us falling.”

Alexander sighed. “That’s a dangerous thing to rely on… but I suppose that, in ordinary circumstances, you wouldn’t be wrong.” He fixed Azal with his eyeless gaze, the stern expression on his face brooking no debate even if he had no eyes with which to stare coldly. “But these are hardly ordinary circumstances. You realize what this next battle means, don’t you? One way or another, it’s most likely going to be the end of the war. We lose, and the Council tramples all over us. We win, and their capability for resistance is more or less crushed. Either way, the vast majority of the chaos will end there – and with it, Ian’s best shot at power will also end.” A note of cold anger crept into his voice – a stern warning to Azal to follow his advice. “Which means he can’t afford to wait anymore. He’ll try something while he still has the chance… and his best chance will be while the next battle rages. If you fail to see it coming, Azal, this fight is as good as over.”

Azal scoffed and started to say something. But before he got far, he fell silent and leaned back against the wall, an expression of contemplation on his face. What Alexander was saying… to Azal, it didn’t make sense that Ian would act that way. If he betrayed Azal during the battle, how could he possibly try to seize power after that? After all, he’d still have the Council to deal with – and he’d have to deal with them while simultaneously trying to get the Bloodhorns under control. Doing something like that would be impossible for any man. So it would make no sense for Ian to put himself in that position – after all, he’d just be captured by the Council and subjected to whatever treatment they planned to give the rebel leaders. And Azal doubted it would be pleasant.

But that was from Azal’s point of view. Ian, on the other hand… Ian was a prideful man. It was a subtle kind of pride, far more restrained than in the sorts of people one normally imagined when picturing someone prideful – so subdued and held in check that, for a while, Azal had been fooled into thinking that Ian was every bit as cold, logical, and pragmatic as Azal himself was. But that wasn’t true, not really. It was what he strived to be as much as he could – it was what gave him the best chance of success in his endeavours, after all. But in a situation like this… could he really supress his pride? Could he really stop it from making him leap at his last great opportunity, even if it was truly a foolish endeavour?

Azal didn’t know, and that was maddening to him. He did not like being in the dark. But… Alexander had a point. Even if he wasn’t sure that Ian would betray him… there was every chance he would. And Azal could not afford to be blind to that.

“Very well,” Azal nodded. “I will deal with him.”

Alexander nodded back, and Azal thought he could see a faint tinge of approval in the gesture. “A long time ago, when the angels still ruled Aead, there was a saying among us. Beware your friend, for he may be an enemy more dangerous than the greatest of foes. If you put too much trust in someone you shouldn’t, it’s almost laughably easy for that person to ruin you utterly. So be careful, Azal.” He stood up from the chair and paced over to the window. “And… by the way? Keep that saying in mind. If you think about it a bit more… well, honestly, I’m not sure you’ll realize anything. But at the very least, there’s a chance.”

Azal narrowed his eyes, not entirely understanding what Alexander meant. But in either case, there was no time for anything like that right now. It would be better to just play along. “Very well.”

“In that case,” Alexander said, “I suppose it’s time to get to what this meeting was actually supposed to be about. We need to talk about this battle.”

Without saying a word, Azal walked over to the window. Standing behind Alexander, he reached under his cloak, the dark cloak that had, in a way, become the unofficial symbol of him as the leader of the Bloodhorns since the beginning of this war. His hand closed around a familiar object, and with a careful, slow motion, he drew out the dagger he had favored for as long as he could remember. The wood – real, true wood, one of the few pieces of such that the demons had managed to obtain from Verta at some point throughout their history – felt comfortable in his hand, and the red ruby in its hilt caught the dull light of Aead, a murky reflection shimmering across its surface. He held the blade up in front of his face for a moment, letting the gray light from the window dance across the cold steel – again, true steel – for a moment. And then, he brought it back to his side.

Even if there were only two people in the room, even if it was a message that would barely be delivered to anybody, what the message was was clear. The Council had issued a challenge. And Azal planned to accept it.

“Indeed. We must,” Azal said, stowing the blade away once more. “But… I have a plan.”

Even if it probably wasn’t really going to get him anywhere, Melthar supposed there was no reason not to start with the most tempting target.

With a shimmer of blue, he appeared on the Queen’s balcony, his arms folded as he casually leaned on the railing. It didn’t send quite as strong a message as it would have if he’d simply appeared in her room, but… unfortunately, he hadn’t actually seen the inside of her room, which made doing that quite impossible. A shame, really. He liked surprising people, especially as a first impression.

Ah well. He’d have to settle for this, he supposed. It wasn’t like it would be much less surprising.

Lily flinched back a little, and her head turned to look at him. She raised an eyebrow, blinked a few times, and then turned her chair to face him.

“Well now,” she said, casually leaning on the chair’s armrest. “Either I’m dreaming, or there’s something weird going on. And I generally don’t realize I’m dreaming when I actually am, so I’m going to go with the second one.”

“Good guess,” Melthar said, casually walking into her room.

“Do you always walk into people’s rooms uninvited in full armor?” Lily asked.

“Generally, yes,” Melthar replied. He leaned against one of the walls, directing a casual, curious gaze at Lily.

She chuckled. “Well, I see you’re my kind of person, then. So, who are you?”

“Name’s Melthar,” Melthar said. He felt pretty sure that, at the very least, convincing her of his identity wouldn’t be too hard.

For a moment, she actually paused, and Melthar saw a restrained expression of shock on her face. He allowed himself a small smile at that. He imagined there wasn’t much that ever shook Queen Lily.

“Well,” she finally said. “That explains a few things, certainly. So, is this divine judgement, then?”

Melthar shook his head, a small smile on his face. “I’m not here to kill you. Unfortunately.”

She tilted her head, her expression dropping to a small frown. “Really now? Aww. I kinda wanted to know what it’d be like to fight a god.”

Not quite able to stop himself, Melthar chuckled. He had to admit, for all that this woman was a horrible, horrible person… she was pretty funny when she wanted to be. “Well, I guess you’ll just have to find that out some other time. But I am here for a reason.”

“Alright then,” Lily said. “Well, let me just get one thing out of the way: you’re not getting special treatment just because you’re a god, okay? I’m not just going to give you anything you ask for. So if that’s what you want, you might as well just leave.” She shrugged. “Well… anyway. Let’s talk, then!”

“Well, I didn’t really come here expecting you to give me anything I wanted, so that’s okay,” Melthar said. “In fact, I’m pretty sure you won’t give me what I want. But… I couldn’t be sure until I checked, so why not?”

“Oh, just tell me what it is already,” Lily said with a small roll of her eyes.

“Right,” Melthar said. “So… I’m here on the behalf of the demon rebellion you helped out a while ago.”

Lily’s eyes widened, and for a few moments, she didn’t say anything. In fact, her usual, carefree expression dropped away, and she just stared at Melthar blankly as if she didn’t have any idea what to make of him. She stared at him silently, tilting her head this way and that, inspecting him like some strange artifact.

And then, she burst out laughing, doubling over in her chair as her laughter resonated through the room. It was good, honest laughter, genuine amusement and joy bubbling up from deep within her heart and escaping as an uncontrolled fit of giggling. It was far from the sort of evil laughter Melthar would have expected from a tyrant like Lily, and honestly, the contrast made him a little uncomfortable. How could someone like her behave so much like a normal girl…?

And actually, forget about him being unsettled. He was pretty damn insulted that she’d just laughed at him. “Hey! What’s so funny?”

“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” she said as she regained her composure. Melthar got the feeling that she really didn’t mean what she said. “It’s just… you? The great god Melthar, leader of the Great Powers, creator of the universe and the world…. and now, apparently, you’re running errands for a bunch of demons. Oh how the mighty have fallen, hm?”

“Considering your position, you might want to be careful how you throw out phrases like that,” Melthar muttered.

“Oh, come now. How many different people do I have to tell this to?” Lily asked, a small note of annoyance in her voice. “I don’t particularly mind the thought of being deposed one day. It’s going to happen one day or another, and I somehow doubt I can do much about the fact that it’ll happen eventually. So why bother worrying about it? For now, I’d much rather just enjoy life.”

“Except in your case, that apparently involves making sure your subjects don’t…” Melthar mumbled under his breath. “Anyway, if you’re done insulting me for working with the rebels-“

“I’m not even close to done to insulting you for that, but I guess I can refrain from doing so for now,” Lily interjected. “Go on.”

“The fact is, as much as I’m a Great Power and all that, I’m not really as powerful as you might think I am,” Melthar said.

“Oh, is that why you’re working with the rebels?” Lily asked, amusement dancing in her eyes.

“Shut up,” Melthar offhandedly responded. “Anyway, the point is, it turns out that, when you’re at war, having a Great Power helping you out isn’t as much of a certain path to victory as you might think. Sure, I’m pretty powerful, but… that’s just not going to cut it against an entire army, is it?” He shrugged. “So there’s the issue. I’m not going to lie – the rebellion’s not in a good position right now, and we need some help if we’re going to win. Would you be willing to offer it?”

Her eyes sparkled with some thought Melthar couldn’t quite catch. “And why should I do that, hmm?”

Melthar shrugged. “You did it once before. Why not again?”

“I did it once before because, honestly, I thought your little rebellion would be interesting,” Lily shrugged. “But… well, I think we saw how that went, didn’t we? I suppose the fault lies with me – it was a bit stupid to expect immediate results on Verta from a rebellion in Aead. But that doesn’t really matter. I’m not helping you anymore.”

“Riiight.” Melthar folded his arms, and a small, ironic smile crept over his face. “And I don’t suppose invoking my credentials as a god would get you to change your mind, would it?”

Lily chuckled. “Melthar, please. Just take a look at all the things I’ve done throughout my reign. Do you really think I’m afraid of divine punishment?”

“No,” he admitted, shaking his head. “I guess you wouldn’t be.”

“And there you have it,” Lily smiled.

“Well, alright,” Melthar smiled. “I guess I’ll have to get my help from… a different source.”

“Well, good luck, then,” Lily said. And with that, Melthar pulled a curtain of space around himself, wrapping himself up in the endless fold of spacetime that made up the fabric of the world. A mental command, an image in the forefront of his mind’s eye, and the teleportation finished.

He appeared in the church he’d been in not too long ago, the young priest still standing inside. “Glad to know you’re still here, Robert.”

Robert turned to him, and his eyes widened slightly, but he kept his composure. “Sir Melthar.”

“Plan A didn’t work,” Melthar said. “So it’s on to plan B. Think you could help me make an entrance?”

“Hear me, o lords and nobles of this great nation!”

The nobleman’s head turned, as did the heads of the few others near the large town square. A priest stood there, alone. He was a young man, clearly some radical who thought he was the one who had the great idea that would revolutionize human society. Honestly, the nobleman had had more than enough of people like that in recent times, and he saw no reason to deal with this one. So, he turned and walked away.

“This day, I have been blessed – blessed with the presence of one of the Great Powers themselves! I stand here as a messenger, a bearer of the will of the great Melthar!”

The nobleman stopped dead in his tracks.

That was unusual. Though, he was still probably just some sort of maniac… well, at least that was a bit more unusual than all those overconfident brats. Still, there was no reason for him to pay any heed to the madman-

Something danced in the corner of his eye.

The nobleman turned, and he could scarcely believe what he was seeing.

Behind the priest, an enormous column of blue stretched into the sky. No – it wouldn’t be right to just call it a column of blue. It was some shimmering, flickering energy, something almost like magic – but not quite magic; there was something off about it – forming a nearly solid wall in the empty air. Though it looked blue, the man could tell, somehow, that that wasn’t just it. It was something else, something he could never understand or comprehend, something so different to anything on humanity’s level that even seeing it as it truly was was impossible. Whatever the curtain of blue was, it was not truly blue. It was merely that that was the only thing the man could possibly see it as.

And that enormous pillar – that column of roaring energy that seemed to stretch towards the heavens – did not truly stretch towards the heavens. If anything, it came down from them. Like the fury of a raging river, the energy descended from the sky, an enormous whirlwind that created winds so powerful the man could feel them even from this far away. It smashed against the ground with a roar, scattering into the surrounding air as it struck the rock. The great pillar of sheer, unmistakable power tore through the skies like a tornado, ripping apart the heavens where it stood, and it roared and roared and roared.

And then, without any visible change, there was a small oasis of calm in the midst of the raging storm. And in that oasis, though it was obscured by the still-flowing torrent of blue, the man could see a figure, standing firm in the midst of the deadly downpour that would surely have washed away any human who dared approach it.

And slowly, bit by bit, the tempest of blue began to abate. At first it was just a small, barely noticeable slowing of the pace – but soon, the wisps of power at the edges of the pillar began to fade, and the pillar itself began to shrink, bit by bit, accelerating with every moment. Finally, the roar of power faded, shrinking to a small diamond-like shape centered on the figure still standing on the empty air. And then, that too faded, and the figure stood in the open.

The light from the sun reflected off his golden armor, casting a brilliant pattern of lights across the city. His blue cloak streamed out behind him, not billowing in the wind as such, but flowing with its currents, melding with them and taming the skies. His blond hair, yellow as gold, looked almost like a crown atop his regal frame. And his eyes, blue as the ocean itself, gazed out at the city with a deep focus, some emotion that no man could comprehend restrained behind the azure depths.

There was no doubt. There could be no doubt. That figure… that man, the one who had appeared amidst that raging storm of power and stood unburdened in its midst, the one who now stood on thin air with no more effort than any man would expend standing on a marble floor…

The priest had been right. Melthar had arrived.

“Men of Sagnir,” the god intoned, his voice carrying through the air so clearly and firmly that it was almost like the universe itself conspired to ensure he would be heard. “I am Melthar, the Great God, Lord of the Great Powers, Creator of the Universe. Your lord arrives. I will speak, and be heard!”

The nobleman looked up, transfixed by the sight of the god standing there in the air. All around him, though he was barely aware of it, all the rest of the people nearby were doing the same. And as Melthar spoke, more men stepped out onto the street, coming out of their mansions and manors, all their attention suddenly drawn towards the speech.

Though none of them realized it, there was but one exception to their mutual shock. For even as they all looked on, unable to do anything but marvel at the sight that they had never even imagined seeing, the priest who had announced Melthar’s arrival simply looked at the noblemen themselves, seemingly uninterested by his own god’s proclamations.

“For too long, you have neglected your duties,” Melthar said, and his tone brooked no dissent. “You have neglected your duties to the world – your duties to make these lands safer, to make the lives of the common folk better, to improve the life of all you touched. For too long, you have been absorbed in your foolish politics, consumed by self-interest. For too long, you all looked on, able to do something about the world’s injustice, the world’s evils… and yet choosing not to. But now, that must end. Now, I give you a chance to redeem yourselves.

“Although you do not know it, as I speak, the world is being changed. In the lands of Aead – the homeland of the demons that have plagued you for so long – there are men, men braver than any of you, who would change the course of history forever. There are demons who would overthrow the Council that lords over them – who would cease their bloody war against the mortals once and for all. They are men who would risk their lives and their souls and their honor for the sake of just one thing – for the sake of others. If they are victorious, none of you will ever have to fear the demons again. If they are victorious, all will change.

“And yet, you do not assist them. They stand, now, at the brink of defeat – and you do not so much as know of their existence. But I offer you a chance to make a difference. I know that many of you have men at your command – that many of you have your own lands, your own servants to call upon. And I know that many of you know others, others who have even more power, who have the means to bring down a fearsome wrath on anyone whom they wish. Now, I call upon you to use those powers for good. I call upon you – take as many men as you can gather. Gather all the followers you can. Make your way to the Portal in the North. And aid the uprising of the demons.”

For a few moments, there was silence.

And then, there was a small, barely audible noise. One man kneeled on the ground, his head bowed.

A moment later, more followed. And more, and more, and more. Soon, in a torrent of sound, every single man around was kneeling, heads bowed in respect to the god that had appeared before them.

Calmly, the priest spoke.

“It shall be done, Lord Melthar.”

Melthar vanished, reappeared somewhere in the alleys, and very nearly collapsed against a wall.

Okay. That had been tiring. First off, the sort of distortion of space necessary to pull off that pillar of blue hadn’t been easy – in fact, he wasn’t sure he’d even attempted something on that scale… ever before. Second, of course, there was the speech itself. He had to admit, he felt a certain sort of satisfaction at being able to sway the crowd so effectively, but… he was not made for that sort of stuff. It had its appeal, he confessed, but… he would much rather prefer not to have to do anything like that again anytime soon.

He wasn’t sure what tipped him off, but he realized that someone was coming. He stood up straight, folded his arms, and tried to present a suitably regal figure.

A young nobleman, his hair a deep dark, a slight trace of a beard on his chin, turned towards him. “Lord Melthar,” he said, with a small bow.

“What do you desire of me?” Melthar said, making the words resonate like those of a true god would.

For a moment, the man doubted himself. “During that speech…” He hesitated. It was clear some part of him didn’t want to say what he planned to say… but a larger part of him did. “How much of that did you truly mean?”

Melthar thought quickly, trying to come up with a suitably deity-like response to the question. And then… he sighed, and smiled, and leaned back against the wall. “Well now. If every person in that crowd thought like you, I might’ve been in real trouble.”

“So… you didn’t truly mean it,” the man said.

“I meant some of it,” Melthar said. “There is a rebellion among the demons. I do think it will improve the lives of a lot of people if it succeeds… well, assuming everything goes well, but I think I can ensure that. And I do want people to help out with it. But…” He shrugged. “Well, if it was up to me, I would never have done anything like what I did today. I’m not a god. Not really. I’m just a person with some special powers. But if I didn’t act like one today, no one would listen to me. So I did what I had to.”

“I… I thought so,” the man said. “That tone… it wasn’t natural. You didn’t truly believe the things you were saying were right.”

“That sort of attention to detail’s going to serve you well,” Melthar said with an approving smile. “And… of course I didn’t mean that. What sort of creator would I be if I created a world only to demand that everyone on it serve me? It’s as I’ve said. I’m not a god. I’m a person – a person who lived from the beginning of everything, and a person with a lot of power, and a person who technically created the universe. But still, just a person. I told the people to listen to me today because, for goodness’ sake, the rebels really need the help… but since I’ve told you this much, I figure I might as well tell you what I really think.” He looked the young noble in the eyes, a gentle expression on his face. “Don’t listen to me, not any more than you’d listen to any other man. Listen to what I have to say, listen to what others have to say – but most of all, listen to your heart. And do what it tells you is the right thing. Because I assure you – I’m just as fallible as you are. And if you just blindly listen to me, it’s not going to do anyone any favors.”

The man hesitated. “Then, I have one question for you.”

“Go on,” Melthar said.

“This rebellion… you truly believe it will help people?”

“I can’t be sure,” Melthar said. “But… I think it’s got a good chance, a better one than most people who’ve seen it would give it credit for. And in either case, I’ll do my best to make sure it does.”

“Then I will help,” the noble said. “Thank you, Melthar.”

“And thank you, too,” Melthar nodded back. “It’s good to know there are still some people like you out there.”

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Chapter 34: Time

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Melthar appeared in Azal’s office, an uncharacteristically grim expression on his face, and, with no preamble, said “We’re out of time.”

There was no need to question the statement’s validity. Azal knew Melthar too well for that. As much as he seemed to constantly be carefree, as much as he seemed to always be far more relaxed than one would expect… this was no joke. Azal was sure of it.

And besides, Azal had been expecting it for a while now.

“They’re starting to move,” he said.

“Yeah,” Melthar said. “It’ll still be a while before they actually get here. But if we want to do something, we’d best be ready to do it now. Remember – our borders are bigger now. And while that might mean we’re more powerful, it also means they don’t have as far to go to reach us.”

“The recruitment effort is going well,” Azal said. “But at this rate, it won’t be fast enough.”

“Mmm,” Melthar nodded. “They’re coming back, and they’ve got more troops than before. I was looking on from above, so I can’t be completely sure of who’s leading this army, but I’d bet anything at least one of the leaders is General Katherine. If that’s the case, we’ve got a problem. She’s formidable, we won’t be able to get her to do something stupid like we did with Ihab, and when she isn’t busy underestimating her enemies, she’s actually damned smart.”

Frankly, in his experience so far, Azal had not found much reason to believe that last claim. But he didn’t doubt it. If Melthar said it, it was almost certainly true. And besides, it would be odd for an incompetent general to become the hero of the Council.

“I have an idea,” Azal said. “But I require your assistance for it.”

Melthar tilted his head at him. “Well, I’m not a mind reader. What is it?”

Azal told him.

For a few moments, Melthar hesitated, his lips pursed in thought. “Huh. I… don’t like it…” he finally said, “but that’s a pretty good idea.”

“Will you do it?” Azal asked.

“Well… there wouldn’t happen to be some other way to get us what we need, would there?” Melthar sighed.

“I’m afraid not,” Azal said with a shake of his head.

“If I was sane, I’d just abandon this rebellion and start a new one…” the Great Power mused to himself. “Alright. I’ll do it.”

“Thank you,” Azal nodded.

“I’d tell you not to thank me,” Melthar said, “but… honestly, that’s the least you could do in exchange for asking me to do this.”

And with that, he vanished from the chamber.

Councillor Gerhardt narrowed his eyes, fixed an eagle’s gaze upon Councillor Mia, and said, his voice cold and sharp like a knife’s edge, “What happened to the prisoner?”

Councillor Mia narrowed her eyes right back at him. “Oh. So that’s what this meeting is about, is it…?”

“Why else would Councillor Gerhardt have requested our presence here on such short notice?” Councillor Yulia pointedly asked. “Someone has entered the Turrim Tenebris unnoticed, snuck past the many guards stationed within, made it to the dungeons completely undetected despite the numerous security precautions along the way, and managed to get out once more – still completely unnoticed, and all while carrying a weapon. Not only that, they have somehow managed to avoid leaving any traces. Surely, this represents a major breach of security – and in these times, that is something that could very well be fatal.” She tilted her head at Councillor Mia, a clearly mocking gesture. “Unless you mean to say you have another explanation…?”

“What I believe,” Councillor Mia said, her face twitching oddly, “is that we should all be cautious. After all, just think of what this murderer would do to anyone who wanted to pursue them…”

At that, Councillor Adrien, as well as Gerhardt himself, both half-rose from their seats and began to say something. But their exclamations were smothered almost as soon as they were born. Councillor Yulia spoke, and she did not raise her voice, but her tone was strict and authoritative – and it silenced the two Councillors in an instant.

“Let’s not play this game, Mia,” Councillor Yulia said. There was none of that slightly mocking tone in her voice now. She, too, thought the time for games was over. She was about to say exactly what she thought, and Gerhardt tensed as he realized what that meant. If she said the wrong thing…

“You killed the prisoner,” she continued, and Councillor Mia flinched back in her seat as the bluntness of the statement struck her. “It seems impossible for an outsider to get into the dungeon alone without leaving a trail, and it is. Only an extremely influential person within the palace could do such a thing – and you are one of the six most influential people here. You would easily be able to descend into the dungeon, order the guards to leave you alone with him, and do as you pleased. And considering how frustrated and angry you were, it is hardly unthinkable that you would decide to kill the rebel just to relieve some of your stress.” The Councillor folded her arms. “And besides, the wounds match your favored dagger.”

Councillor Mia ground her teeth. “You… you dare accuse me? I… I am your only hope! I am the only one here who can defeat the rebels! And you would claim I killed the prisoner?! You would call me a murderer?!”

“The accusation should not bother you, should it?” Councillor Yulia shrugged. “Unless you mean to say you do, after all, respect the Council’s authority?”

At that, the chirean froze.

Her hands gripped the sides of her seat so tightly Gerhardt thought her claws might leave impressions in the wood, and she faced Councillor Yulia with an expression of sheer, uncontrolled rage frozen in time on her face. Her eyes were wide with fury and hate and shock, and her teeth ground against each other harshly. The only movement Gerhardt could see – at least, other than a constant small twitch of her eye – was that, every few moments, she would tremble in her seat, as if the anger inside her was trying to burst out and she was just barely keeping it contained.

Gerhardt saw what Councillor Yulia had done. Claiming that she respected the Council’s authority would likely mean the accusations against her would be dropped – no one would want to try and accuse a Councillor of a crime when that Councillor herself denied it, and she would have to deny it if she wanted to pretend to respect the Council. As of now, there was still quite some danger for her – as long as she kept acting as rebelliously as she recently had been, as long as she kept openly calling the rest of the Council fools and imbeciles, she could barely be considered a “Councillor” at all, and there would be no trouble with prosecuting her for murder, especially when the accusation had been made by another Councillor. But if she simply reaffirmed her dedication to the Council and her respect of its authority, then considering her status, her sins would be forgiven – and attempting to prosecute her would be basically tantamount to treason unless a majority of the other Councillors agreed to it, something which almost certainly wouldn’t happen in a time of civil war.

But if she chose that option, then she would have to actually demonstrate at least some loyalty to the Council. After all, even if everyone would know it was a ruse in any case, she’d have to at least maintain the pretense of honesty. And that meant that they would be able to fight this war without Mia getting in the way – after all, if she started acting up again, Councillor Yulia could simply remind her of her answer to her question, and she’d be forced to fall back in line, or else be called a liar and most likely once again accused of the murder. So if Mia accepted Councillor Yulia’s offer – if she simply said “yes” – then she would be able to stay on the Council, unpunished for her actions, and the rest of them would be able to fight the war without her getting in the way. It would be a victory for everyone – and while, perhaps, it was an option that lacked justice, Gerhardt was willing to forgive a Councillor an occasional misstep.

There was just one problem with that, though – she’d have to swallow her pride. She’d have to admit that she wasn’t absolutely superior to everyone else, that the rest of the Councillors were capable enough to be deserving of respect – and Gerhardt knew that wouldn’t be easy for someone like her.

Whereas if she refused – if she outright stated that she didn’t respect the Council’s authority – that was as good as a confession to treason, especially when it was said in such an official context. By itself, that statement wouldn’t be good enough to get her arrested – people said lots of things, and they didn’t truly mean many of them – but it would be more than enough to get her removed from the Council. While something like that had never happened before, it could and would happen if Mia refused to acknowledge the Council’s authority – and at that point, the rest of the Council would be free to continue to accuse her with impunity. She would be removed from authority, arrested for murder – and, considering the fact that she’d murdered a valuable prisoner and deprived the Council of information, likely executed – and, as with the other option, the rest of the Council would be free to proceed with the war without her interference.

Councillor Yulia’s eyes met Mia’s and didn’t look away. She looked at the rebellious Councillor, her gaze cold and unflinching even in the face of Mia’s rage. She was daring her to make her choice.

“I…” Mia said, forcing the words out from between her still-gritted teeth. “Of course I respect the Council’s authority.”

Melthar sighed as he walked through the streets, looking up at the bright blue sky. He wasn’t in Aead anymore. Azal had ordered him back to Verta – more specifically, to Sagnir, the nation with which Azal had made his previous deal. And now, he walked through the streets of the capital city, trying to figure out how he would do what Azal had asked of him.

In truth, it wasn’t a complicated request. Melthar was a Great Power, after all – one of the three gods of the religion that dominated the whole of Verta, and to some degree, even Aead. So the theory was simple. He was a god, worshipped by the people. If he revealed himself and spoke directly to those people, they would surely be willing to do anything for him. Such as, for instance, helping out a rebellion in Aead.

It was… well, it wasn’t how Melthar had expected his status as a Great Power to help out. But even if it wounded his pride a little, he couldn’t help but admit, if grudgingly, that it was a pretty good plan. Sure, in this day and age, religion was little more than an excuse for some people to do what they wanted and for other people to be not allowed to do what they wanted… but that was when there wasn’t an actual, flesh-and-blood Great Power standing right in front of the priests and nobles. Once he showed up and revealed himself, Melthar imagined they’d change their tune quickly enough.

And he had to admit, that part of the plan didn’t really sit well with him, either. He’d lived more or less alone, isolated from the entire world except for the company of the Great Powers, for… at least a thousand years, now. In that time, he supposed, he’d happened to end up with a sort of… pride, almost… about staying in isolation. And now, he was going to have to reveal himself for the sake of something so… relatively insignificant as Azal’s rebellion.

But, he admitted to himself, he’d probably end up revealing himself to the people one day or the other anyway. Even if the Bloodhorns were largely a bunch of utterly fucked up people (what with Alexander and Janus being a bit too at home in the midst of battle for Melthar’s comfort, Ian being a scheming little bastard who clearly just wanted power for himself, Aya being basically little more than a kid trying to do what seemed “cool”, Darius being… curiously absent of major issues, actually, and Azal being… Azal), he couldn’t help but enjoy their company far more than he’d expected. After all, he hadn’t really had any company other than Janus and the Great Powers in a long time, and since the other Great Powers had no idea how to have fun and Janus was, after all, only one person, that hadn’t been all that exciting. Now? Now, he actually had people to talk to, some outlets to just… say what was on his mind and be assured that he’d be listened to. Even if it was something so little as just having someone to tell jokes to, it was still… honestly really nice. So he figured he probably wasn’t going to stop there, and he’d go out into the wider world someday – and that would require him to reveal himself eventually, rebellion or not. So he supposed Azal making him do it a bit earlier than he’d have liked to wasn’t a huge issue.

Still, he couldn’t help but feel a bit anxious about it. After all, what was he supposed to say? “Hey, I’m a Great Power! My name’s Melthar! I think you’ve all heard of me, right?” Yeah… because that wouldn’t be suspicious at all. Sure, he could go around showing off his powers, but would even that really convince people? After all, even the Bloodhorns had been more than a little slow to accept that he was who he claimed to be, and he didn’t have the sort of religious mystique among demonkind that he’d surely have among humans. All the demons had had to accept had been that there was a mythological hero among them – the humans would have to accept that there was a living, 100% real god among them, standing right there and talking to them. And not only would that be a bit of a hard sell in any case, but considering Melthar’s personality… well, he really didn’t have high hopes for how easy it’d be to convince people. He hardly ever acted… ”godlike,” after all.

Ah well. He’d figure it out.

“This meeting is called to order,” Azal said.

“That sort of formality really necessary?” Alexander asked, and Azal got the feeling that he’d have rolled his eyes if he had any.

Azal didn’t dignify the question with a response.

“The first order of business is that, as I assume you have already noticed, Melthar and Darius are currently missing,” Azal continued without paying any heed to Alexander. “That is because they are both, at present, away on missions that are critical to the Bloodhorns. Darius has been transported to Merdrun, the Council’s capital, by Melthar, and he is now gathering information there to report back later. As for Melthar himself, he is currently searching for potential allies among the people of Verta.”

“Using his religious following to gather allies?” Alexander said, and a small smile crept onto his face. “Well now. Are you the one who came up with that idea, Azal?”

“Certainly,” Azal nodded.

“Well, credit where credit is due: That’s pretty clever. I like it,” Alexander said. “If we – or, well, I guess if Melthar plays this right – it could make up for our losses when combined with the recruiting we’ve been doing. It could more than make up for our losses.”

“Thank you, Alexander,” Azal said. “Indeed, that was my intent. Right now, our army is in a troubling state. We must restore our forces as much as possible before the next battle with the Council. This is a good way of doing so.”

“This next battle,” Ian said. “Roughly speaking, how much time do we have until it begins?”

“Assuming Melthar reported the movement of their army as soon as he saw it – which I believe he did – we still have some time,” Azal said.

“Yeah,” Alexander interjected. “Aead’s tiny compared to Verta – it’s about two thirds the size of Aphage, and that’s not even the biggest continent there is on Verta – but it’s still not exactly small as far as people are concerned. Two thirds the size of a continent is pretty big, and we’re almost all the way to the north – whereas the capital’s roughly in the middle of the place. I mean…” He shrugged. “Well, I guess now that we’ve got some more territory, they’ll get to us a bit sooner than they would’ve otherwise. But still, we’ve got some time to use. A bit over two weeks or so.” He hesitated for a moment. “Well, of course, it depends on how fast they go. But that’s the rough estimate we’re looking at.”

“I see,” Ian said. “Then we must prepare. Our armies, as of now, are still in a far worse state than those of the Council. I concede that Melthar’s efforts may be able to bolster our forces significantly, but for now, we are still lacking in men. We must prepare for the worst-case scenario.”

“Indeed,” Azal said. “Judging by Melthar’s report, we can assume that the enemy army moving towards us is far larger than any force we can muster at present. Even with our recruitment efforts, we still have not fully recovered from the devastating losses we sustained during the First Battle of Redgate.”

“Is that what you’re calling it now?” Alexander said with a small chuckle. “And while you’re technically right, we’re getting close. I mean… look, I’ll be honest: by now, we technically control quite a bit of territory, but our influence is only really felt in Redgate itself, so the recruitment really hasn’t been going quickly. And besides, Redgate’s the biggest city around for a good distance anyway, so any new settlements we add to our territory don’t actually give us nearly as much men as we’d like. But still, the army’s growing steadily, and more territory means more population means more recruits almost by definition. If we keep this up, we should have, at the very least, a comparable amount of men to how much we had before the First Battle – and most likely more – by the time the Council gets to us. We’ll still be outnumbered, but we might be able to give them a decent challenge even in a straight-up fight. I mean, obviously, that’s not what we’re planning to do, but… I’m just saying, we’re not in as disadvantageous of a position as you might think. Especially if Melthar ends up being successful.”

“True,” Ian admitted. “But I am worried about something else.”

“Oh?” Alexander asked.

“In our current state, merely pushing back the Council should not be too difficult,” Ian said. “Certainly, it will still take effort, and it’s probable that we will lose much of our recently-gained territory – but we can almost certainly push them back if we simply fortify the inner city once more. We have far more manpower now, and even during the previous siege, we managed to defend well. Should they attack us again when we have far more defenders, they will almost surely fail.

“However, that is not what I am worried about,” Ian said in a grave voice. “First off, all that is only true if we assume that the Council will attempt a direct attack. But I doubt they will do that. After all, they’ve already tried it once, and they know how it went last time. Instead, they could just as easily simply wait and starve us out. If they do that, we will be lacking a countermove.”

“Actually,” Alexander interjected, “celestials – angels and demons, that is – don’t technically need to eat to survive. But they’re still not going to be able to fight after starving for a while, so I guess it’s a moot point.”

“But second, and more importantly,” Ian continued, “even discounting that, simply driving off the Council here would be pointless. After all, they have no need to win now. Alexander, perhaps you would be more knowledgeable on this than I am, but surely, what we face now is not the full extent of the Council’s army, is it?”

Alexander put a hand to his chin in contemplation. “Well, I don’t have any great sources on the Council’s numbers. But… it might not actually be as clear-cut as you think. Unlike more or less all of the mortal nations, the Council doesn’t use conscription, so the amount of people in the army is relatively very small. And when you think about it… it’s hardly like they have anything else to do with their army, do they? I doubt they’d be particularly worried about an attack on them by the mortals – after all, it’s never happened before, so why would it happen now? – and as stubborn as they are about it normally, I think even they would be willing to pause their campaigns against Verta to deal with something like this.” He paused for a moment, clearly considering the issue.

When he came up with his answer, he said it as casually as if it were an everyday thing to discuss. “Huh. I know it seems absurd, but… there’s actually a good chance we’re about to be facing nearly the entire army of the Council.”

And for the first time in as long as he could remember, Azal exclaimed in shock. “Excuse me?!”

Melthar appeared in the church in an intentionally exaggerated and slowed blur of blue right in front of the young priest. He hoped it would add to the feeling of “divinity”. Really, he had basically no idea what he was doing, but… if he just looked confident, hopefully the priest would buy it.

And in any case, he’d chosen this guy for a reason. He’d hardly had much time to observe individual priests within the capital of Sagnir and see how they all acted, but just from what little reconnaissance he had done before going ahead with the plan, he’d figured out a few very important things about this priest, Robert Seed (it was oddly convenient that all the numerous people he’d met or had any interaction with recently had different first names, but… he wasn’t going to complain). Well, really, it was one important thing, but it was a pretty damn big one.

Robert, it seemed (Melthar couldn’t quite remember the proper form of address for a priest, and he couldn’t be bothered to try to remember), had one key characteristic that set him apart from many of the other priests in the city. Namely, unlike the droves of priests who were really only affiliated with religion for status or personal gain, he was actually a genuinely devout man who had joined the clergy out of an honest desire to serve his god. Gods, actually, Melthar corrected himself.

Well, in either case, he was about to get a chance to.

The young priest looked up from his prayer, his eyes wide in shock. “M-my lord?” he stammered out.

Ah. It seemed he recognized Melthar on sight (or maybe it was the sudden teleporting… didn’t really matter). That made things easier.

“Greetings, Robert Seed,” Melthar nodded. “I am Melthar, and I have come to speak to you.”

The priest’s mouth hung half-open in stunned surprise, and he stared blankly at Melthar. He dropped to his knees in a gesture of supplication. “I… I thank you for granting this humble servant this honor, my lord.”

Melthar fought down an urge to sigh. He had to say, he really didn’t like this sort of worship as a rule. Being respected and liked was nice and all, but… there was a line. This just made him feel uncomfortable.

But he had to keep up the façade. After all, it wouldn’t be easy to convince people he was really Melthar one way or another. It would not be a good idea to sabotage himself further by acting like he usually was.

Then again… maybe that would be true for most people, Melthar mused, but would it really be true for Robert? From what he’d seen of the man while he’d been observing the city, Robert was really a good, kind man who truly believed in the Great Powers. Of all the people who Melthar had to worry about losing faith in him because he wasn’t acting “properly”… Robert probably wasn’t one of them.

And in that case, Melthar wasn’t going to bother keeping the mask up. He didn’t feel like acting like that unless it was absolutely necessary.

“You’re welcome,” Melthar said. “Lock the door, please. There are things I wish to say to you, and I would not want anyone passing by to hear them.”

“Very well,” Robert nodded, rising from his knees and gathering his composure. He walked over to the door and locked it.

“Thank you,” Melthar nodded.

Robert turned back around to face him, an expression of wonder still on his face. “What do you desire of me, my lord?”

Melthar considered what to say for a moment. “Alright, I’ll say one thing right away: I know you religion says a lot of things about me. I don’t actually know what those things are, but I’d be willing to guess that a lot of them are wrong.”

The priest looked at Melthar for a moment. “You mean…?” he asked, his voice dull.

“Second, I’m probably not the sort of person you’d expect me to be,” he said, stepping down from the spot near the altar where he’d appeared. “Again, I don’t know what your texts say about me. I’ll just say what I am right now and clear up any misunderstandings: for the most part, I’m every bit as much a normal human as you are. I’ve got some powers, and I guess, in a way, you could say I created the world… though honestly, even then, I just laid the groundwork. Most of it happened on its own. But I digress. What I’m trying to say is… I’m not as godlike as you think I am, okay?”

“Then…” the priest said.

Melthar walked over to one of the church’s benches and casually sat down, trying his best to look more calm and collected than he felt. He was pretty sure he’d already messed it up, but… there was nothing to do for it, he supposed. “What I’m saying, Mr. Seed, is that honestly, I’m not all I’m made out to be,” he said. “So… see if you can talk to me like I’m not a god or whatever it is you see me as, okay? Just… there’s something I’m here to do, and it’s going to be a lot easier if you just talk to me like another person.” He hesitated for a moment. “And besides… I much prefer it that way, anyway.” With a gesture of his hand, he indicated a spot on the bench near him. “Take a seat.”

Robert walked over to the bench and sat down on the spot Melthar had indicated. “Very well, my lord.”

“And stop calling me “your lord,”” Melthar said, not quite managing to conceal a bit of agitation. “Come on. I have a name. It’s not even that hard to remember.”

“What do you mean, the entire army of the Council?!” Azal asked.

Alexander shrugged. “It’s not that surprising, really. It’s not like they have any borders they need to defend. Well, I suppose they do, in the form of the portals – but by and large, the mortals don’t care enough to try and invade, so they’re fairly safe for now. It’s not that bad of a decision to divert as much manpower as possible to stopping this rebellion, especially now that we’ve killed one of the Councillors. Or did you really think that wouldn’t shake them up a little?”

“In any case, we should not have done that,” Ian muttered under his breath. “It was not a good choice to provoke an enemy that is this dangerous.”

“If we’d had a choice, I’d agree with you,” Alexander said. “But it was that or let the Bloodhorns be destroyed. I say Janus did the right thing.”

“I suppose,” Ian conceded.

“One moment,” Azal said. “I understand the merits of this discussion, but I cannot help but feel there is something else that we must talk about right now. Alexander – you say all of the Council’s might is approaching us at the moment?”

“Well, not quite,” he admitted. “I’d bet more or less anything they’ve still got at least some men at Merdrun, just in case. And in either case, it’s just a guess – I don’t have any actual proof. But…” For a moment, he hesitated, as if dumbstruck by the absurdity of what he himself was about to say. “Yeah. It’s not unlikely.”

“Then this means…” Azal took a moment to gather his thoughts. “This will be the decisive battle.”

“Yeah,” Alexander said gravely. “If they’re dedicating this much to stopping us, then they won’t stop until we’ve been utterly annihilated. So there’s only one thing left to do.”

Though emotions were hard to read on a person who didn’t have eyes, everyone in that room saw the grim determination in the angel’s face.

“There’s going to be no delaying, not anymore. We will have to destroy them utterly.”

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