“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. 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.”
“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.”
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.”
“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…?
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, 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.”