Chapter 47: Fall of Eternity

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The two armies stood, watching each other.

Well… “armies” was a bit of a stretch. It was only Azal’s force that could be called a proper army. The enemy had, at a guess, probably less than a thousand men – in fact, probably only around half that many. Azal’s force outnumbered them enormously, and the enemy looked like nothing more than a nuisance, about to be crushed by the Bloodhorns’ forces.

Azal knew all too well that that wouldn’t be true.

Even then, he couldn’t help but feel a bit doubtful that it would truly be as difficult as Melthar had made it sound. Surely even the Archdemon could not cast magic on a scale so grand as to offset this difference…?

No, that was a dangerous thing to think. He could. And most likely, he could do it without any serious effort.

He hoped the Archdemon would save his magic for when the two forces met. That way, yes, his magic would have a shorter distance to travel, and would thus be at full power – but his army could envelop the Archdemon’s much smaller force, making it difficult for him to use any large scale attacks without also killing his own men. In contrast, if the Archdemon struck while Azal’s army was still all in front of him, he could cause incredible damage without any worry.

But in any case, there was no time to think about things like that now. He couldn’t influence the Archdemon’s choice. And besides, his army was getting restless. It had been impossible to impress upon them just how dangerous the Archdemon was, and to them, it looked like this would be an easy victory. So they wouldn’t want to waste their time just standing around.

And seeing as there was nothing else Azal could do before the battle in any case… better not to let morale deteriorate any further.

With a flourish, he drew his dagger from his robes and pointed it forward.

Charge!

The men rushed forward, a ringing cry enveloping the air. Men shouting battlecries, armored feet slamming onto the ground, steel waving and swinging and clanging. Sounds roared through the battlefield, reaching Azal’s ears atop the walls of Merdrun. The deafening sounds of war.

And then, they were all swept away.

Without warning, fire tore through the army, enveloping the entire front rank. As if unleashed from the maw of some great dragon, or as if cast down as divine punishment by some vengeful god, the fire roared, drowning out horrified screams and shouts and dying cries alike. And though, at this distance, it was impossible to make out, Azal could swear that, for just an instant, he saw, clear as day, the Archdemon’s smirk in the middle of his force.

And, also… he saw a flash of blue in the flame.

Melthar dashed forward, letting the momentum from running carry him onwards after he’d teleported, his sword already drawn. With no more sound than a slight grunt, he brought it around in a vicious arc, putting as much strength as he could into the swing.

The blade was met by the shaft of a spear.

It wasn’t that the spear had been used to block the sword. It had simply appeared there, stuck in the ground, in position to block Melthar’s attack.

But he hadn’t thought it would be that easy.

The Archdemon tore the spear free from the ground and thrust it forward, and Melthar took a step back, away from its point.

“So, here you are,” the Archdemon said, a cruel smirk on his face. “You… I had always hated you, but truly? I had thought even you would have a little too much dignity to sink down to this sort of level…”

“And I used to think you wouldn’t end up being a maniacal tyrant,” Melthar said, “but look where that got us. Is there any point to this other than you wanting to stroke your ego, “brother?” Or can we move on with the battle now?”

“Hmph. So crude…” the Archdemon muttered. “Fine, then.”

Without warning, fire sprouted from the ground underneath Melthar’s feet – deadly, blazing fire. Any normal person wouldn’t have been able to do anything but burn to death. Melthar was no normal person.

He teleported right in front of the Archdemon, out of the fire’s reach, his blade already poised to strike. But before he could strike, without so much as a gesture from his enemy, a raging wind burst out between the two of them, throwing Melthar back. It didn’t move the Archdemon at all… but then, of course it didn’t.

Melthar teleported again before he could hit the fire, reappearing behind the Archdemon, some distance away. The Archdemon turned around, that cocky smirk still on his face.

“Right,” Melthar muttered darkly. “You can predict where I’m going to teleport.”

“My understanding of magic is far superior to yours,” the Archdemon replied. “You could never hide your actions from one such as me.”

“Well, whatever,” Melthar said. “I won’t need-“

In the corner of his eye, he saw a flash of motion as a sword darted for his head. On pure instinct, his own sword shot up to met it, shattering the other blade in a shower of shards.

And then, the Archdemon’s face turned suddenly to a furious scowl, and with a snap of his fingers, fire erupted just beside Melthar, clinging to the demon who had just attacked him like a snake wrapping around its prey.

“Fool!” the Archdemon yelled. “He is mine! Stay out of this!”

Around them, the Archdemon’s congregation dispersed – partly to obey the command that had just been given, but mostly, Melthar thought, out of fear. They were left in an empty space roughly the shape of an oval in the middle of the group of demons.

Melthar teleported behind the Archdemon, and again, a gust of wind threw him back. So he vanished again, and appeared in front of him this time. Again, wind threw him back, and again, he vanished before he’d flown a meter.

This time, he appeared above the Archdemon, and, before the Archdemon could possibly react, shot a blast of space-distortion at his head.

But the Archdemon didn’t need to react. Before Melthar could cast the spell, a blast of wind threw him away once again.

“Hmph. Is that all, “brother?”” the Archdemon asked. “Lein put up a better fight than this.”

“Oh, I’m just getting started.”

The Archdemon chuckled. “Take this, then!”

With a wave of his hand, a ball of flame flew at Melthar. Melthar cut it down the middle, slicing away the very space the fire occupied, splitting the ball in half and sending it flying past him.

He rushed forward, blade readied as if to strike – and, an instant before he was in range, he stopped suddenly. In front of him, a whirlwind roared, for just a moment, around the Archdemon – a whirlwind that he had summoned just a moment too soon, just a bit prematurely. The Archdemon had assumed that Melthar would attack with his sword, and responded appropriately.

Instead, Melthar thrust his hand forward and displaced space in a thin line.

The price of doing something like this – of using his spatial manipulation in a remote way – was that he couldn’t precisely control where whatever he displaced would go. Most likely, everything he displaced would end up just outside of the line of displaced space. But if he hit something vital, that would be more than enough – and even if he didn’t, it would at least distract the Archdemon and leave him open for a more fatal attack.

But…

“Oh, you little schemer… you think you’re so clever, do you?”

The voice came from above him.

Melthar teleported away instantly, just in time to avoid the spear that would have pierced his head.

He looked up. Right above where he’d just been, the Archdemon calmly sat on a whirling mass of air, a grin on his face.

“Did you really think that would be enough to catch me off my guard?” the Archdemon asked. “I can feel where your magic is going. If I notice it going in a line like that, it’s hardly going to be hard for me to figure out what it’s about to do, hm? And since the whirlwind was already active, it only took me a bit of effort to repurpose it like this.”

“Oh, damn you…” Melthar muttered.

At least the Archdemon wasn’t attacking. Most likely, he was having too much fun just sitting there blocking everything Melthar threw at him. And as much as the thought was demeaning, that was convenient – if he wasn’t going to attack, Melthar would have a lot more freedom in dealing with him.

Melthar charged again, and, as the Archdemon sat there without a care in the world, he teleported right above him.

Of course, the instant he did, a burst of wind blasted him away. The Archdemon hadn’t even looked at him.

Which was why he hadn’t noticed that, in the brief instant Melthar had been there, he’d thrown his sword upwards into the air.

It was a bit less than dignified, but… whatever worked.

The sword came down, and its hilt struck the Archdemon in the head.

Heh… you can predict magic, hm? Then I suppose it’ll just take something mundane to bring you down.

Suddenly, the Archdemon’s concentration broke, and, with a frankly comical expression of shock on his face, he tumbled down to the ground. “Wh-?!”

Melthar wasn’t going to let this go to waste. The Archdemon’s spell had been broken, and his concentration had been disrupted – but it would only be for an instant.

Which meant that, in that one instant, Melthar had to finish it.

He teleported forward, bringing his sword back to his hand in the same instant, and thrust down at the Archdemon. At the last instant, the Archdemon turned towards him and, with an angry scowl on his face, thrust his hand forward, trying to repel Melthar once more.

But that wouldn’t be so easy this time.

Compared to the Archdemon, Melthar was an amateur. In the sense of power, he was a more powerful Great Power – but that didn’t necessarily mean anything, and this battle had proven that. The Archdemon had been spending centuries doing nothing but honing his abilities. In contrast, Melthar had allowed his to fall into disuse – that was why what he could now do was so sharply limited. With that in mind, there was no way Melthar could defeat the Archdemon – not with their skills as they currently were.

Which meant he’d have to improvise. Right here, right now, in the thick of battle, he would have to push his limits more than he could remember doing for millennia.

Melthar held out a hand, and space bent around him.

The Archdemon’s winds shot forward, but the very space they were occupying twisted and turned and changed, and that entire space simply moved around Melthar without touching him, leaving him unharmed – and still able to attack.

His head felt like it was splitting open. This was far, far more advanced than anything he’d done in as long as he could remember. Perhaps, with long years of training, he’d be able to do it as naturally as breathing – but now, he was forcing himself to do it here and now, without an instant’s hesitation or preparation. His mind could not handle it. It would not handle it.

It had to handle it.

…but just because something had to happen didn’t mean it would.

An instant more. If his mind had held out for just an instant more, Melthar could have ended this battle in a single strike. Instead, a sudden pain burst out from behind his eyes, turning the world to a scrambled mess and making him forget, even if just for a moment, all about the battle going on here. The sword fell from his fingers, he collapsed to the ground with his hands clutching at his head – and the wind took effect once more, blasting him away.

Mercifully, the worst of the pain subsided quickly, though the strain on his mind remained, pressing down on him like his brain was being squashed by a ring of heavy weights. But there was no time to think about that, not now. Melthar scrambled to his feet, trying to force himself to think.

Damn it. I guess that’s what I get, but… will I even be able to teleport after that…?

“Guh…” the Archdemon muttered, standing up. “To think… to think you would be able to do something like that… Fine. I had hoped to test your powers a little longer, but I will kill you now.”

The Archdemon charged, a vicious charge fueled by magical wind at his back. Faster than any man or demon could possibly hope to go, he rushed forward, spear at the ready. Melthar tried to dodge, tried to get out of the way, tried to do something – but even the simple thought of using his powers again brought about a pale shadow of that pain, that awful pain, and…

…and steel flashed, sending the Archdemon’s spear to the side and making the point sail straight past Melthar as the Archdemon himself stumbled to a stop.

“Good luck with that one,” Alexander said, stepping into the duel ring.

The Archdemon took a few steps back, glaring at Alexander. “You would interrupt our battle?”

“Yeah,” Alexander said. “Melthar’s been my friend for a long time. His life’s more important to me than honor or anything like that… and as for your feelings, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I never considered them in the first place.”

“Fine,” the Archdemon said. “Die, then.”

He extended his hand.

And, without ever making a conscious decision, Melthar teleported to his friend, grasped him by the shoulder, and teleported both of them away before the Archdemon’s magic struck.

An instant later, an eruption of fire spewed from the ground where Alexander had just been standing.

A sharp pain ran through his skull, and Melthar clutched his head in his hands. “Agh… dammit.”

Alexander glanced briefly at him. “You alright?”

“Yeah, I’m fine,” Melthar muttered. “Huh. Guess it’s not as bad if I don’t think too much about it…”

“You are starting to annoy me…” the Archdemon grumbled.

“Yeah? What are you going to do about it?” Melthar asked.

“To think you would still make light of things in a situation like this… Do you even understand that you’re about to die?”

The Archdemon extended a hand, and a tongue of flame roared forth, curling into the shape of a dragon’s maw and racing to devour the two. Melthar nodded, almost imperceptibly, and Alexander responded in kind.

Alexander’s hand shot forward, and a raging gust of wing shot forth to oppose the flame. But it was hopeless. The wind barely even slowed the fire’s approach, and in only seconds, the flames were already about to consume the angel.

And in that instant, Melthar reappeared behind the Archdemon and, with a single, lightning-swift cut, sliced him in half.

The flames ceased abruptly, and the Archdemon’s upper body, separated from his legs, tumbled onto the ground. “Wh-what?!”

“Alexander put out a lot of magical energy to create that windblast,” Melthar said. “So I guess you didn’t notice it when I teleported behind you. The streams of magic blended together. Though, you should’ve noticed it anyway when my magic went behind you… but I guess you were just too self-absorbed to even see that much, huh?”

“Ghh…” the Archdemon hissed out, laying on the ground, blood seeping out onto the red soil. And then, there was a red glow, and the Archdemon’s legs simply reformed out of magic, good as new.

Melthar cursed himself in his mind. Right. Great Powers could regenerate. He should’ve just gone for the finishing blow then and there rather than waste time talking about it.

Damn it. Could’ve ended it there, but…

The Archdemon shot to his feet on a gust of wind, apparently too interested in showing off to simply stand up like a normal person. He swept his spear at Melthar, and Melthar blocked it with his sword, shoving the shaft away. The Archdemon attacked again, simply using his spear rather than his magic, and Melthar blocked the attack again-

-and he saw something behind the Archdemon, and his eyes widened, just a little.

That was enough.

The Archdemon, noticing Melthar’s reaction, looked behind himself – and saw Alexander, charging straight at him, sword in hand.

After all, the Archdemon could only predict magical attacks. Against something like this, he had nothing.

But Melthar had given it away, and, after a moment’s deliberation, the Archdemon summoned a blast of wind around himself once again, blasting Melthar away – and giving him the time to turn around and block Alexander’s strike as it came.

But Alexander, though deterred for a moment, simply shoved the Archdemon’s blade aside and struck again. And in that instant, Melthar vanished – and reappeared right behind the Archdemon. He attacked at the same moment he appeared, trapping the Archdemon between the two swords.

And a gale wind erupted where the Archdemon stood, and though neither of the two were blown back this time, their swords swung through nothing but empty air.

Melthar looked up. There, up above, the Archdemon was, once more, calmly sitting atop a column of swirling air.

“Oh, damn you,” Melthar muttered.

“Hmph,” the Archdemon smirked. “Fine… I’ll admit it. I suppose I wasn’t paying enough attention, but… yes. Your little trick got me. But…” He grinned. “You won’t get a second chance!”

For an instant, a thought crossed Melthar’s mind. The Archdemon was using a lot of magical energy to keep himself aloft, and it was going upwards – which meant it was coming from the same direction as where any attack from Melthar would come from. If he attacked now, the Archdemon wouldn’t be able to tell his magic apart from his own. That way, he could hit him again, and this time it would be a fatal blow…

But the column dispelled itself, launching the Archdemon into the air with its last burst of wind, and before Melthar could even think about attacking him, he thrust a hand downwards.

Melthar knew well enough what that meant.

He grabbed Alexander once more and teleported both of them away, moments before a column of fire erupted where they had just been standing – and then, before Melthar could react, a second column erupted right where they had teleported, consuming both of them in flame.

Melthar recoiled in shock, but there was no time for thought. He simply grabbed Alexander and teleported him away, and an instant later, the flames consumed him.

The heat burned like a furnace, and he could feel his mind going, white-hot pain filling every single thought – but he knew what he had to do. It was as the Archdemon had demonstrated a moment ago. Great Powers could regenerate. All he had to do was get out of the column of flame and heal himself.

But that wasn’t as easy as it seemed. Not when the flames burned away at his flesh and charred his skin to ash. Not when the world was suddenly filled with heat that he would’ve never thought possible. Not when he could only focus for an instant before the pain filled the rest of his mind.

And, of course… not when the moment he did teleport away, the Archdemon would simply cast fire down upon him once more.

Unless.

Melthar closed his eyes, grit his teeth, and teleported.

…In any battle, a single moment of hesitation could spell one’s doom. In a battle like this, that was both more and less true. In a way, it was less true here than in a normal battle. Both the Archdemon and Melthar had powers that could allow them to evade attacks that, for any normal person, would’ve been completely unavoidable. But it was more true, too, in a different way. After all, both combatants knew as much already – and they both knew that, if they just got a single good chance, they’d simply have to attack in a way the enemy wouldn’t be able to counter. For all the power the two possessed, at their core, they were living things like anything else. If their brain was destroyed with a single blow, there wouldn’t be anything they could do but die.

So all Melthar needed to do was get a single opportunity.

He vanished.

At that instant, he knew the Archdemon would sense where the magical energy was going.

He knew the Archdemon would prepare to create a new pillar of flame at the spot Melthar appeared.

And – he knew that, just for an instant, the Archdemon would hesitate.

Because Melthar reappeared right above him.

The Archdemon’s power was terrifying because of its sheer versatility. Though his unique powers as a Great Power were nothing special in a fight such as this – both Melthar and Alexander were far too strong to fall victim to his mental powers, especially when he was already using them to maintain control of at least some of his men – his prowess with simple magic more than made up for that. He wasn’t quite as powerful as any of the other Great Powers, but he could do so much more than them that it was simply irrelevant.

But even so, there were some things that Melthar could do that the Archdemon couldn’t.

Melthar could teleport. The Archdemon couldn’t.

And that was why the Archdemon couldn’t proceed with his plan. He only had a split second to act. He wouldn’t be able to simultaneously create a pillar of flame at Melthar’s location and move himself far enough away to not also be charred to a crisp.

That was why, just for an instant, the Archdemon hesitated. And in that instant, Melthar drove his sword downwards, the point shooting straight for the Archdemon’s brain.

But.

In that instant, there was a blinding light, and searing heat sprung up again – and once more, flame burst forth from the earth.

Melthar’s strike missed its mark, his view obscured by the flames and his blade sent off-course by the sudden heat rushing through his body – and in that instant, wind exploded around the Archdemon, throwing Melthar back once more.

Melthar regenerated himself before he hit the ground, healing all the damage the fire had done. But at that moment, the column of fire disappeared too, and the Archdemon did the exact same thing.

“Did you really think that would work?” the Archdemon asked. “To destroy something like you… something that stands in the way of my destiny… did you think I would balk at the thought of sacrificing my own flesh? You fool!”

“Damn it…” Melthar muttered. “You’re really obsessed, you know that?”

In that case, there was no helping it.

There was still one final idea he had, one final trump card that, if he pulled it off, could let him win this fight. But… he’d pushed his powers to the limits once before already, and it hadn’t gone well. If he wanted to execute this plan, he’d have to go even further beyond that. It was something he thought he could do, something that he should have been able to do, judging from his domain as a Great Power – but he’d never tried it before. In his entire existence, he’d never once done something like what he was now considering.

But… he’d just have to do it.

All he had to do was land a single attack that the Archdemon couldn’t avoid.

That’s all, he thought. Alright, then… I can do that.

Darius looked on, watching the battlefield intently. “Hey… Azal?”

“Yes?”

“What’s with that glum look? We’re winning, aren’t we?”

Azal shook his head. “No. Our army is beating the Archdemon’s army… but that outcome was never in doubt. Nor does it matter. The Archdemon is a foe beyond things like that. Right now, the only thing that matters is his duel with Melthar. If Melthar loses that battle, all the forces of demonkind won’t help us.”

“Well… and what?” Darius asked. “In that case, we should be doing everything we can to help him win, shouldn’t we?”

“It’s not that simple,” Azal said. “It’s as Melthar said. His power is suited to fighting single opponents. If he were faced with the Archdemon’s army, he could still most likely win – but the distraction would be more than enough for the Archdemon to kill him. And that is why we are doing what we are. We must keep the opposing army occupied, or else it’s all over. That is how we are helping him.”

“And you?” Darius asked. “Are you just going to stand up here on this wall and watch it happen?”

“What would you have me do?” Azal asked. “I am no fighter. I cannot stand up to even an ordinary duelist in a battle. It should go without saying I am incapable of standing on the same level as those two.”

“Well, there’s still something you can do, isn’t there?”

Azal shook his head. “No. I am a tactician, a strategist, and a ruler. Those are my talents. They are what have led me this far. But sometimes, no matter who one is, they will be forced to admit that their talents cannot help them. This is one such situation. There is no need for tactics or strategy here. Our army will defeat the enemy’s army easily, regardless of what tactics we use – but in any case, as I have already said, that is irrelevant. The only thing that matters is the duel. It is a duel I am powerless to influence. The only thing we can do now is put our faith in Melthar.”

“Faith?” Darius asked. “Now that’s not a word I ever expected to hear you use.”

“I used to not trust anyone but myself to do anything properly,” Azal said. “I would attempt to manage every aspect of every task, try to keep everything under my own control. In a way, I suppose I am still like that… but, even if it’s only a small amount, I’ve learned. When the Council sent out Katherine and Ihab to attack us, they didn’t bother themselves with trying to manage all of their actions – and they nearly brought us to our knees regardless. They put their trust and their faith in their people, and that faith was not misplaced. Now, it is my turn to do the same.”

“So… what?” Darius asked. “We just sit here and hope it goes our way?”

“Yes,” Azal said. “I have grown… used to being in control of everything. I assure you, being as powerless as we are now hurts me just as much as it hurts you. But it is the only way. No one can truly be in control all the time. Right now, even if it’s only for the duration of this battle… we must let go of our control, and leave our hopes to those who can achieve them in our stead.”

“Huh. I… get it, I guess,” Darius muttered. “Still… didn’t expect to hear something like that coming from you.”

Azal smiled, ever so slightly. “What sort of ruler would I be if I did not grow from my experiences? Even if it was just a little…”

Melthar looked to the side, to where Alexander was. He nodded once to the angel.

I need time, he thought to himself. I know what I need to do. But I can’t do it while the Archdemon’s attacking me.

But of course, he couldn’t say that. Saying it would just make the Archdemon refocus his attack on him. The only thing he could do was hope Alexander would understand him… or, failing that, that he would at least keep attacking the Archdemon anyway.

Melthar just needed to do one thing. If Alexander could keep the Archdemon occupied for long enough for him to do that, that would be enough.

But for Alexander to be able to do that in the first place, Melthar still needed to do one more thing.

He teleported once more – and once again, he teleported right above the Archdemon. He knew the Archdemon would simply blast him away once more before he got a chance to attack. But this time, he wasn’t planning to attack him.

The instant Melthar reappeared, a blast of wind shot forth – but it was already too late.

Melthar warped space once more, and this time, both he himself and the Archdemon were teleported to the ground.

Alexander seized his chance, rushing forth to cut the Archdemon down from behind. And that was exactly what Melthar had been hoping for.

Melthar backpedalled away as quickly as he could. He didn’t dare risk drawing the Archdemon’s attention by attempting to teleport away, but he still needed to get away, just in case. If the Archdemon’s attention shifted to him once again while he was concentrating, and he was too close, he wouldn’t be able to escape.

The Archdemon looked at Melthar in frustration and reached forwards with one hand, trying to cast another spell and kill him – but an instant before he could, he heard Alexander’s approach and, with a single quick swing of his spear, batted the angel’s sword away. That was as Melthar had hoped, but… even so, he couldn’t help but be concerned. If Alexander fought the Archdemon on his own…

But there was no time to be worried about that. Even if the worst should happen… as much as it hurt to think, it would still be better than if the Archdemon won. So all Melthar could do now was concentrate on stopping that from happening.

But… just before Melthar began to focus entirely on his final attack, he saw a flash of steel come out into the ring from within the surrounding battle.

The Archdemon wasn’t sure himself how he’d noticed it. Perhaps he’d simply heard it an instant before it happened… or perhaps it was something deeper. He knew it was his right to rule over demonkind. So perhaps it was simply already decided that they could not harm him.

Whatever the case, he realized what was going on a moment before it happened, and, with a lightning-fast motion, whirled around and swung his spear again, deflecting the blade coming at him from his other side.

It barely took any effort or concentration to create one more blast of wind, knocking both the angel and the newcomer away.

And as the second one to interrupt his duel with his brother rose, the Archdemon realized that he recognized him.

It wasn’t that he’d seen him in person before, of course. But he’d heard of him. The Cult had told him of the stories surrounding the man who was now undoubtedly in front of him.

Janus. The Legendary Swordsman. A man whose prowess with a blade was supposedly unmatched, not only among demons, but among all creatures – and not only among those alive today, but even among the great masters of centuries past. His curved blade, light armor, and cocky bearing were the stuff of legends almost as much as the man himself and his skill was. He was, quite literally, a living legend.

The Archdemon smiled.

Excellent.

In that case, it was about time to show the world just how little being a legend meant in front of a god.

After all, that was what he was. It was the demons’ conceit that had led him to this point. He had always been meant to rule over them. Was that not how it was? He had more power over them than anyone else. He was their god, their creator. He was their lord and ruler by right. What hubris had driven them to reject him? What foolishness was it that had made them think they could topple a god? Why did these creatures think they had the right to revolt against those higher than them?

No… that didn’t matter. All that mattered was that he would make them pay.

Starting with the two cretins who had dared interrupt his duel.

“So, you too would interrupt this battle?” he asked. “Janus, the Legendary Swordsman…”

Janus stood up and shrugged, a mirthless smile on his face. “Hah. You’ve heard of me, too? Guess my reputation’s spread more than I thought.”

“Yes… I suppose it has,” the Archdemon said. “It must have gone to your head. Or do you actually think that just because you are a legend, you can stand against a god? What foolishness.”

“I’m not stupid enough to think something like that,” Janus said. “But there’s one thing I do know. One very, very simple thing. Well… two, actually. The first is that Melthar’s my friend, and I’m not going to just stand by and let you kill my friends without me having some say in it. The second… is that I know full well what it’d mean if you were to win. Look, I never really concerned myself with who the ruler of Aead was. I’d never cared for the Council, nor did I care for the rebels. I only joined them in the first place because Melthar did. But… if you were to win here, it’d be worse than any of that, wouldn’t it? It wouldn’t just be a matter of politics or government or laws anymore. It’d just be an entire race consigned to eternal slavery, trapped under your heel. Right?”

“Hmph.” The Archdemon waved his hand. “I have always been your rightful ruler. It is no fault of mine if you are too proud to accept that.”

“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” Janus said. “Maybe I can’t win. No – I know I can’t win. But that doesn’t mean I’ll just stand by and let someone like you do whatever he pleases. After all, as much as I can’t say I like the guy… Azal started from nothing and ended up winning everything. Who’s to say one of us can’t do the same?”

“Fine, then,” the Archdemon said. “In that case, die.”

The Archdemon’s hand shot forward, and a blossom of flames exploded from his palm.

At that instant.

Melthar would never be quite sure why it had worked then. Most likely, it had simply been that fear for Janus had forced him to act, then and there, regardless of whether or not he thought he could. But in an instant, the spell, forced into action, skipped all the steps of its casting and sprang into being in an instant.

Everything froze.

After all, Melthar was the Great Power of space…

…and time.

It was something that he’d never come even close to being able to do before. And he wouldn’t be able to maintain for more than a few instants. But that would be enough.

A few instants would be all he would need when time was frozen.

He knew he should have been feeling pain, pain like he had never felt before – the price for doing something like this. But, though he wasn’t sure if it was simply the adrenaline or something else, there was no pain. There would be time for pain later.

He vanished, reappeared behind the Archdemon – and hesitated.

He had a single instant.

In that single instant, he had to land a fatal blow.

Anything less, and the Archdemon would heal it in instants.

Even if he stabbed him in the brain, that wouldn’t necessarily be enough if he didn’t get the right part of it. And he wasn’t sure what the right part was.

And then, an idea came to him.

After all… they were Great Powers. In a way, they were gods. But, in another, very important, way… they weren’t. They were just people like any other, except that they happened to have some special powers.

And that made the answer perfectly clear.

In his one instant, Melthar drew back his left fist and struck the Archdemon in the back of the head with his steel gauntlet.

Time resumed. A sudden pain assaulted Melthar, and he dropped to the ground. He could just barely see the orb of fire continue its way forwards, Janus trying to dodge out of the way – but it wouldn’t be fast enough. Without a single conscious thought, Melthar teleported to him, grabbed him, and teleported him out of the way.

And then, finally, his vision was clear enough that he saw what he had been hoping to see.

The Archdemon lay on the red soil, unmoving.

After all, he was just a living being like any other.

And it didn’t matter what they were. An impact like that, to the back of the head of something alive, would knock them unconscious instantly.

“-eh?” Alexander muttered in confusion. Of course. He wouldn’t know what had just happened.

But Melthar was more than happy to take his chance.

He picked up his sword, rose to his feet – and, with a single, final blow, ended the war.

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Chapter 46: Denouement

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“Heh… so, I guess you’ve finally done it.” Melthar smiled, though there was something to it that Azal could see. Regret, he supposed. “Well done, Azal.”

“No,” Azal said. “It’s not done yet.”

“Right. The “contingency…” or, if we’re going to stop beating around the bush, the Archdemon.”

“Not just the Archdemon,” Azal said, shaking his head. “I’ve won the war… but that’ll only be the first part of the struggle. The Archdemon was hated throughout all of Aead, but the Council was different. Many demons loved them. And those demons won’t accept me as their leader so easily.”

“Well, that makes sense,” Melthar said. “Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think you were wrong to do what you did. You had a reason, and it was a good one. But the Council wasn’t a bunch of tyrants. They were self-destructive, and lacking in foresight, and overly idealistic… but all in all, they tried their best. Even if it would’ve inevitably lead to disaster eventually, they were doing their best to ensure that demonkind would have prosperity… or their version thereof, anyway. And aside from the constant, senseless war, aside from the sacrifices of thousands of demon soldiers – and the deaths of just as many mortal ones – aside from all that… you can’t deny they weren’t bad rulers. It’s not surprising that they would be beloved… and nor, I dare say, is it unreasonable.”

“Hmph,” Azal grunted. “No need to play coy with me, Melthar. I understand what you’re trying to say.”

“Then I suppose I may as well cut to the chase,” Melthar said. “You’re right. I’m talking about you. During all their reign, during the centuries they’ve ruled over demonkind, the Council has never lost sight of its ideals. Sure, they did some pretty stupid things to fulfill those ideals… but the fact is, they never abandoned them. They never lost sight of what it is they took over for in the first place.” The god’s brilliant blue eyes pierced Azal with a sharp gaze. “Now, my question is…”

“Can the same be said of me?” Azal asked.

“Hah. I see you’ve already seen the issue, then.”

“Yes,” Azal nodded. “I know. I’m all too aware. I didn’t realize it until recently, but… you’re right. Whatever reason I started this rebellion for… I’ve lost sight of it.”

“Well, that makes this easier,” Melthar said. “But just because you’re aware of the problem doesn’t fix it. I supported you all this way, because I knew that if the Council was allowed to keep on doing what it’s been doing all this time, it’d inevitably lead to demonkind’s destruction – and if they did somehow survive, it would be at the expense of the mortals. Whichever way it turned out, that wouldn’t be something I want. That’s why I decided to help you. But just because I helped you get this far, don’t think I consider you my master in any way. I am a Great Power, Azal. Do not forget that I helped you of my own will, because I wanted to. Now that I’ve achieved my goal… there’s nothing tying me to you anymore.”

“You know, you could’ve said that in a much simpler way.”

“Hmph. So you’ve figured out what I’m saying again? Well, don’t get too proud of yourself. That one was easy.”

“Yes… I understand,” Azal said. “You didn’t want the Council to keep ruling demonkind. You wanted a better ruler for them. But just because I deposed the Council doesn’t mean I’ll be a better ruler. And if I’m not, you’re fully prepared to depose me and install someone else on the throne.”

“Yeah… that’s more or less it,” Melthar said.

“As I’ve said before… you’re right,” Azal said. Though he knew Melthar really would kill him if he proved to be just another tyrant, this time, he wasn’t simply saying whatever was necessary to preserve his power. This time, he spoke with absolute honesty – and with a cold, resolved tone. “I started this rebellion for the same reason you decided to help it. Because the Council’s actions would lead to the annihilation of demonkind. But at some point along the line, I ended up simply wanting more power. It wasn’t that I’d forgotten my original reasoning… it had simply become irrelevant, somewhere in the depths of my mind. The people around me became nothing more than pawns for me to use to overthrow the Council, nothing more than pieces on a gameboard. It was necessary, because with how much of a disadvantage we were at compared to the Council, we had no choice but to do everything in our power to win… but at some point, I’d forgotten that it was supposed to be something distasteful in the first place.

“So you’re right. At some point, I have become just as bad as those whom I’ve overthrown. But… that’s because I lost sight of why I was doing this in the first place. Because I lost sight of what this all was supposed to be. But…”

Azal looked up at Melthar. His deep blue eyes, normally so casual and relaxed, coldly bored into him with a merciless gaze. It was the face of a judge standing before the judged – the face of one whose mind was already deciding another’s fate.

Not too long ago, that would’ve scared Azal. Not that he would’ve shown it, of course. But it would’ve scared him. He would’ve known that this was not someone he wanted as an enemy. And so, he would’ve said whatever Melthar would’ve wanted to hear – whatever would’ve kept him on his side.

He was past that now. Back during that final battle, he’d realized something. When the Council’s last line of defenses had simply fallen, trampled by the relentless tide of the rebels… when Councillor Yulia had thrown away her own life for the sake of a future for demonkind… when the Council had collapsed under the force of their attack without so much as a hope of survival… that was when Azal had realized that he’d become just like those he despised. Not the Council, though – Azal had never been like them, and he knew he never would be. He had become just like the one who had been even worse than them, the one whom both he and the Council had known as the definition of evil. He had become just like the old king.

And after that, he’d had to make a decision.

Continue doing what he’d been doing all this time. Build his kingdom. Become the king that would lead demonkind to greatness, that would turn what the mortals saw as nothing more than pests constantly plaguing them into a power to match the mortals’ greatest nations. Gain power, gain influence, gain wealth, and do it all as safely as possible. And do it all at the expense of his subjects. Do it all without sparing a moment’s thought for whomever he hurt, for the feelings or thoughts or dreams of anyone but him.

Or… stop. And become the sort of ruler demonkind needed.

It had been an obvious choice.

He wouldn’t become the old king. And he wouldn’t lie about what he was anymore, either. After all, if he’d already made up his mind… there was no more need to lie anymore.

“I am no idealist, Melthar. I have never believed in lofty dreams or grand ideals. But I believe in something else. I believe in what is here. I believe in all the things around us, all the things we can see and touch and feel and sense. And I believe in one truth, the truth that perhaps all the world’s simple folk believe in – that a great ruler can only be one who rules for his subjects.

“If I were to continue doing what I was doing before, I would not become like what I had fought. I would not become like the Council. I would become like the old king. And considering what I have just said… that is the one thing I will do everything in my power to avoid. Will I be able to avoid it? I can’t know. Not yet. I know the sort of person I am, now. It’ll have to be a lifetime of constantly keeping myself in check, of constantly looking over everything I’m doing again and again and again, making sure I’m not subconsciously doing the very things I thought I’d never do. But I can tell you one thing – no matter what, I’ll try. Whatever you may think of me, Melthar, I assure you that being like the old king is not something I want. And… I think you know me well enough to know what happens when I don’t want something.”

For just an instant there was silence, and then, very slightly, Melthar smiled.

“Heh. So, that’s your defence, then?” he said. “Well… I guess it’s the best I could really hope for. If you really do hold yourself to your words, you could be the exact sort of ruler demonkind needs right now… but of course, that’s still an if, isn’t it? But… I’m willing to give you a chance.”

“Thank you,” Azal said. “And there’s one more thing I want to ask.”

“Go on.”

“The Council’s “contingency…” or, as you said, the Archdemon. The old king,” Azal said. “By now, we both know just how powerful he is. And we know how much of a threat he could easily be. He is the one obstacle we must still overcome before we can truly consider this war won. So… are you with us?”

“Oh, that’s all you wanted to ask?” Melthar asked, a coy tone in his voice. “Well… let me put it this way. You know how… hm, actually, you probably don’t. You know anything about mortal creation myths?”

“Not particularly.”

“Well, back at the very beginning, we, the Great Powers, were the first things to come into existence. But of them, I was the first to be born. Lein and Avylia came into being just a bit later, making me – even if only by a little bit – the oldest creature in existence,” Melthar said. “Or, well… that’s how the story usually goes. But really, there was one other Great Power – one other one that was born at the same instant I was. I won’t say his name, but… well, you’ve probably guessed it already, but you know him as the Archdemon.

“And for a long, long time… we were close. I was far closer to him than I was to the other two. We considered each other brothers. But despite that, I never noticed it when he started to feel differently than all the rest of us… or perhaps I just didn’t want to notice. In any case, when he started growing more power-hungry, when he started thinking that our powers meant we should be ruling over the people, I didn’t notice it until it was too late. Eventually, having had dominion over the realm of Aead, he took the angels and, with a single, enormous spell, turned them into new, twisted creatures – creatures totally obedient to him. Demons.

“Or, well… that was the plan. Of course, for anyone else, anything remotely similar would’ve been totally impossible. But aside from Aead, his domain as a Great Power was power over people. So, with those two dominions combined, his great spell worked… sort of. It twisted the entire realm of Aead, yes. And it turned all the angels unlucky enough to still be there at the time into demons, just as he’d intended. But even someone as great as he was could not enforce absolute obedience in an entire race just like that.

“But, of course… that wouldn’t stand. And at the end of the day, he didn’t need the spell that would make demons obedient to him. Not really. It would’ve made things easier, yes… but since it had failed, he saw no problem with simply moving on to his backup plan.”

“Taking control by force,” Azal said.

“Precisely,” Melthar said. “And the rest is history. So you see now, don’t you? If I’d stepped in a bit sooner, if I’d admitted to myself what I was seeing, if I’d been willing to intervene and stop my brother… we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place. The Archdemon’s rule turned the demons into something the mortals feared – and that was why, when the Council took over, they thought had no choice but to keep being enemies with the mortals. If I’d acted sooner, if the Archdemon’s rule had never happened… well, even I can’t know how different things would’ve been. But at the very least, it would’ve never gotten to this point.

“So do you see?” he asked. “I failed to stop this whole mess from starting… but at the very least, I can lay it to rest, once and for all.” Melthar nodded slightly. “Yeah. I’m with you.”

“Thank you, Melthar,” Azal said. “Then we can’t waste a moment. We must prepare.”

“Heh heh heh… so, this is what has happened, hm? This is what has become of my old kingdom… hm hm hm.” The Archdemon laughed. But there was something just behind that amusement, something twisted and dark and roaring and raging – something that was just waiting to be let loose, to be unleashed upon the world. Something that terrified those who heard it, something that spoke louder than words ever could. It didn’t matter how good-naturedly the Archdemon seemed to be taking this. It didn’t matter how much he chuckled or laughed as if he himself was amused by the changes that had occurred.

Inside, the King was furious.

If it was deep inside, that would’ve been fine. But it wasn’t. It was a hot, boiling anger, burning just beneath the surface, visible in every single small motion he made and audible in every single syllable he spoke. He laughed and chuckled and made light of all that had happened, because that was the only way he could keep the rage contained for even another moment.

And, of course, it went without saying that he wasn’t keeping it contained out of the good of his heart. He was merely waiting for the right moment – the right moment to unleash the full force of his wrath.

That was what terrified the man beside him most of all. The knowledge that, at any moment, the Archdemon’s rage could boil over… and if that happened, there wouldn’t be a thing the man could do about it. There wouldn’t be a thing anyone could do about it. They would all simply burn to ashes.

It would seem like common sense that the man’s terror would be shared by everyone else in the Archdemon’s company. But that was far from true. Oh, certainly, there was plenty of fear Ian could see – all of it suppressed, of course; the Archdemon would punish any sign of weakness without hesitation. But it was all near the fringes of the group the Archdemon had gathered as he’d marched across the demons’ lands, pressing any he found “worthy” into service and killing everyone else. Each and every of the demons surrounding them would die if they displeased the Archdemon even slightly… but only slightly over half of them seemed to be even slightly fearful.

Of course, that wasn’t odd at all. After all, all the rest didn’t have any will with which to be fearful anymore.

The Archdemon acted somewhat sparingly with his power over the minds of others. The man couldn’t be sure why, but… he supposed even he had some sort of limit. Even the Archdemon could not forcefully control too many people at once… though, of course, the man would never dare so much as imply that in spoken conversation. Even considering that the Archdemon might have some sort of weakness would be met with instant death.

Then again, the man thought, perhaps that would be better. Once the Archdemon got a proper base of operations again, he wouldn’t stop at simply killing those who displeased him. Perhaps it would be better to simply get himself killed before then and spare himself the inevitable pain.

The man’s name was Ian Sabrin.

After he’d made his attempt on Azal’s life, he hadn’t dared to go north. That was the territory of the Bloodhorns, after all, and he’d seen just how ruthless Azal could be when the situation called for it. He couldn’t be sure the information about his attack had even made it back to Redgate by that point, but… he couldn’t risk it.

So instead, he’d fled south, hoping to pass through uninhabited territory and get to a Portal. From there, he’d be able to get back to Verta and flee back to Sagnir. At that point, his scheme to steal control of the demons had almost certainly been unsalvageable already, but he’d still be able to just get back to his previous life as if nothing had happened. As far as he was concerned, that would’ve been perfectly fine. After all, there was never any guarantee a gambit like his would pay off. Simply getting off scot-free would’ve been good enough for him.

Unfortunately, he’d had no such luck.

He’d managed to make it a decent amount of distance without being spotted, but before he got all the way to the portal, he’d gotten unlucky. Some guardsmen from a small village who were loyal to the Council had spotted him and realized he was a human, and, after they’d gotten over their initial shock, had gone out and captured him. He’d tried to get away, but their knowledge of the geography had been far superior, and he’d had no luck.

Only at that point, it seemed, had the men involved realized that there was no procedure for dealing with something like this, and so, they’d had no idea what to do with him after capturing him. In the absence of anything else to do, they’d decided to take him to the Council – or at least, to someone closer to them – and get some instructions. But just as they’d been planning to do that, the rebels had attacked Merdrun and taken it, and the news had reached the group’s ears. Realizing that they could hardly go to Merdrun now, the group of demons had decided to flee south, Ian still in tow, and figure out what to do once the rebels were defeated (they’d seemed to have no doubts that that would eventually happen).

That was when they’d run into the Archdemon.

The demons that had captured him had been utterly loyal to the Council, and had refused to serve the Archdemon. The Archdemon, not seeing them as worthwhile enough to waste energy mind-controlling, had slaughtered them all. Ian, of course, had had no such compunctions.

Though now, he couldn’t help but find himself halfway wishing he had. Some part of him thought that death would have been preferable to this – to living in constant fear, knowing that every moment, an unstoppable force far beyond his wildest imagination could simply decide to kill him, and there wouldn’t be anything he could do to stop it… but even then, most of all, Ian simply wanted to live. This was the most horrific thing he’d ever experienced, the greatest terror he’d ever felt, and the most powerless he’d ever been… and yet, though many would curse him for it, and he himself was tempted to do the same, he still found it preferable to dying.

If the price for continuing to live was serving this mad king’s every whim… then, though he hated himself for it, it was a price he would pay. If only he had more courage, if only he wasn’t this afraid of death, he could’ve simply angered the Archdemon and ended his suffering. But he couldn’t. No matter how much his mind objected to it, no matter how much his dignity or pride or conscience – whatever conscience he still had – railed against it, his heart could not help but simply do whatever the Archdemon said. He was too terrified to do anything else.

The Archdemon had forced Ian to tell him everything about what had happened in Aead recently, and it seemed like that was the part that had enraged the mad king more than anything else. He had already hated, of course, the fact that his kingdom was being ruled by someone else… but it seemed the thought that he had been overthrown by rulers too weak to even stop their own people when they rose up against them was what made him the most furious. And, of course, he hardly had any love for the new wave of rebels, either.

Ian dreaded what would happen when the Archdemon eventually, inevitably, overthrew the Bloodhorns. Even though he’d planned to betray Azal from the start, even though he’d always been using the rebellion just for his own personal gain, there had been nothing personal about it – and in a way, he had even liked Azal, just a little. He didn’t want to see what the Archdemon would do to them.

Of course, knowing the Archdemon… it was rather likely he wouldn’t just stop at making Ian watch. More likely, he’d make Ian himself carry out their punishments. And Ian knew that he would obey.

Damn it all, he thought to himself. Damn me… and damn those rebels… and damn this cursed Archdemon!

The Archdemon’s stride didn’t change, not even a bit, but his eyes that blazed like flame turned, just slightly, in Ian’s direction.

Ian’s heart leapt up into his throat, and his mind froze.

The Archdemon had the power to control minds. Did that mean… did that mean he could even hear Ian’s thoughts…?

The Archdemon smiled slightly.

And he walked on.

Ian forced down the scream that had nearly torn itself loose from his throat. He wanted to run away. He needed to run away. The group wasn’t that big, not yet. And besides – for some reason beyond his understanding, though probably just a whim – the Archdemon had placed him at the front. If he tried to flee, he’d be outside the reach of the ring of demons within seconds. And then he’d be free, free of all this. He’d need to run far to be sure they couldn’t reach him, but he could do it.

No. He couldn’t do it.

He would’ve been able to do it if it was an ordinary person leading this group.

But the Archdemon would just kill him in the blink of an eye.

He forced himself to march onwards alongside the Archdemon, trying not to think about what would happen when he inevitably tired of him.

“Right now…? It’s not good. A lot better than it could’ve been,” Alexander said, “but not good. After a rebellion like this, it should be obvious that there’s going to be dissent. The army’s been spending all its time supressing it. We should mostly have Merdrun under control, along with the immediate surroundings, but… I can’t guarantee any more than that. And, for that matter, if we get the army to start doing something else, I can’t even guarantee that.”

Azal supressed an exclamation of annoyance. Granted, it wasn’t much worse than he thought it’d be, but… that was still bad enough.

“And yet we need the army,” Azal pointed out. “And we need them ready. And we need them now.”

“Yeah. We do,” Alexander agreed. “That’s exactly the issue. We can’t pull the army back now, not if we don’t want unrest to tear us apart… but we have to.”

“Perhaps we could stall for a while?” Darius suggested, his voice uncharacteristically serious. “If we managed to delay the battle until the area was more controlled, we wouldn’t have to worry as much about unrest.”

Melthar shook his head. “No. You don’t know the Archdemon like I do. Trust me: he’s going to march straight to Merdrun, and he’s not going to let anything stop him. And he’s not going to let anything delay him either. We’ll just have to be ready to fight him whenever he arrives.”

“What do we do, then?” Azal said. “We cannot simply ignore what will happen if we refocus the army’s efforts.”

“We have to,” Melthar said. “Unrest, chaos, protests… we can deal with all of that later. We cannot allow the Archdemon to take Merdrun. If he gets a base of operations to work from, we won’t be able to stop him.”

“Why not?” Darius asked. “The Council did.”

“When the Council had faced him, he was at a fraction of his current power,” Melthar said. The entire time he’s been sealed away, he’s simply been practicing his magic, perfecting it further and further. Back then, he wasn’t that much stronger than a particularly powerful normal mage – no real threat to an entire army, not by himself. Now… now he’s in an entirely different league.

“Right now, he probably doesn’t have many men with him. Certainly, he’s been recruiting throughout southern Aead, but he wouldn’t focus too much on that before he’s taken Merdrun back. After all, knowing him, I’d be willing to bet he thinks he can take on our entire army by himself… and he might not be wrong.”

“Hang on, now,” Darius said. “Didn’t you say even you wouldn’t be able to do that?”

“I wouldn’t be able to even come close,” Melthar said. “My powers work excellently against single opponents, even powerful ones. But the Archdemon is different. He is a fearsome fighter in a duel, yes, but it would be against hundreds of weak foes that his power would truly shine. Our unique abilities as Great Powers are nice and all, but for sheer destructive power, with the possible exception of what Lein could do, there’s really nothing that can match simple, normal magic with enough power put into it.”

“Damn it…” Darius muttered. “Well, what do we do, then?”

“As for that, I have an idea,” Azal said. “After all, Melthar, you yourself just said your powers were good against single opponents, didn’t you?”

“Exactly,” Melthar said. In normal circumstances, Azal would’ve expected him to react to how he’d just guessed what he was thinking, but… these were hardly normal circumstances. “We’ll have the best chance of victory if I face the Archdemon myself… and besides, it’ll give me a chance to finally settle the score. But I can’t do that if whatever demons he’s gathered so far keep harassing me as I fight. That’s why we’ll need the army, Azal.”

“Yes,” Azal said. But still, he hesitated for a moment. The Archdemon was a threat, yes, but… couldn’t unrest and rebellions bring down a ruler just as well as an outside threat? If they couldn’t find a way to keep the people in check while the army was busy, wouldn’t they be destroyed just as surely as if they didn’t prepare for the battle against the Archdemon in the first place?

But if he defeated the Archdemon and was deposed afterwards, then at least the new ruler would still, most likely, have demonkind’s best interests in mind. At the very worst, it’d be as if he hadn’t started this rebellion in the first place.

He didn’t like the thought of that. But it was far better than what would happen if the Archdemon won.

“Very well,” he said. “I will have them prepare.”

“Good,” Melthar nodded. “The answer to this one is probably “no,” but… do we have any information on where the Archdemon is right now?”

“No,” Azal said. “I sent Aya out to see if she could find them, but…”

“Ah,” Melthar said, cringing slightly in his chair. “Damn it…”

Azal closed his eyes. He had to admit, even though he’d tried not to get too attached to any of his followers… he had liked Aya. She’d reminded him of something long lost to him. Thinking about what had probably happened to her was… painful.

But there would be time for that later. For now, they needed to prepare.

“Alexander, get the troops ready,” Azal said.

“Got it.”

“D-damn you…”

Aya trembled, on her knees. She couldn’t help it. She’d sworn to herself that she’d serve Azal no matter what, that she’d never back down from any enemy, that she’d face any trial without fear… but… this man…

This man was terrifying. That was all there was to it. No matter how much she told herself to stay calm, how much she told herself that she had to be loyal, that she had to be brave… she couldn’t stop trembling.

“I-I don’t care what you do,” she stuttered out, holding back tears. “I’ll never betray Azal! Never!”

“Hmph. A little rat like you showing such loyalty…?” the man – she thought she remembered Azal calling him the Archdemon – said, cold scorn in his voice. “Then again, I suppose for a master like that rebel, a servant like you is only appropriate…” He turned away, muttering to himself disinterestedly. “I should never have allowed creatures like you to exist in the first place…. that was a mistake. From the start, I should have been the only one allowed to have such powers…”

“Y-you! W-what… what do you want from me?!” Aya yelled, as much to assuage her own fear as anything else. At least if she knew, if she knew what he was planning… maybe it’d be easier to prepare for.

The Archdemon smirked and placed a hand on her forehead.

And, though she couldn’t describe the feeling, she felt something happen.

“Now then… rise.”

And, without even thinking about what she was doing, she stood up.

W… what…?

“Hmph…” He looked over her coldly. “You still dare to wear that pathetic disguise? Return to what you truly are, mongrel.”

And, against her will, her body began to change. The human form she had transformed herself into twisted, shrunk, began to turn back into the tiny form of a shadow…

H-he’s… c-controlling my mind…

He’d use her. He’d use her in the same way she’d served Azal, only worse. He’d use her to get close to Azal… and when the time was right, he’d make her…

He’d make her…

kill

him…

She’d be forced to… to kill… Azal…?

No…

No. NO!

Anything else. He could do whatever he wanted with her. But… she would never betray Azal! Never…!

No matter what.

The transformation stopped and reversed, and she turned back into her human form. The Archdemon recoiled and pulled his hand away, shocked.

She didn’t pause to think. There was no need for her to think about what she was doing.

She just punched the Archdemon in the face.

“Agh!” he screamed. “You… you bitch…!”

Without a moment’s hesitation, without a moment’s thought, she charged forward.

The Archdemon recovered and extended a hand, a nigh-insane scowl on his face.

In that moment, Aya knew.

She was about to die.

But…

Better that than betraying Azal.

…and then she only felt fire.

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Chapter 45: The Final Act Arrives

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“Gerhardt, I must speak to you.”

Gerhardt turned. “Councillor Yulia. What brings you here?”

“What else, of course? The things going on right outside our door.” She smiled slightly.

Gerhardt’s eyes narrowed. “…why are you smiling?”

She closed her eyes. “Ah. It’s… amusing, that’s all.”

“What is?”

“Merely… that this would be the kind of person to cause my downfall. Gerhardt, you remember what happened back at Inferus, right?”

Gerhardt thought back to what she was talking about… to what had happened a long, long time ago.

Back when they hadn’t been the Council. Back when they had just been a group of rebels, and not a powerful one, either. Back when… back when they had been in the exact same position that their enemy was.

Inferus was a city that had existed back then, one that had been near the southernmost edge of Aead. It had existed, because during the course of their rebellion, it had been destroyed. Utterly.

It had been destroyed at the behest of Yulia.

It had happened during the relatively early stages of the rebellion. It had happened back when they had lacked power, lacked influence… lacked everything, really. Unlike the current rebels, they hadn’t had the advantage of starting as a cohesive splinter group in a large city. They had just been a loose alliance of like-minded people, spread out across several small villages in the South. Unlike the present rebels, they hadn’t had any good way to gather enough people to make a strong first move. They’d given their speeches and rallied the masses and gathered their mobs, of course, but… it had all taken place in the villages. They hadn’t been able to reach anywhere near the same amount of people that these rebels had.

And they couldn’t go to Inferus itself and start spreading their message, either, because – thanks to what had been, in retrospect, a horribly reckless attitude – word of their dissent had spread by then, and while there had been nothing quite concrete enough for the king to spend his time and effort trying to track them down and stop them, there had been more than enough to ensure that they would be watched if they tried entering one of the major cities. They would’ve never been able to talk to anyone like that.

So taking over Inferus had seemed to be out of the question. It had been something that they simply couldn’t do, not as things had stood. But nevertheless, they had all held out hope. If they could just find an opening, if they could sway the people of the city to their side, they would’ve been able to get a massive boost to their efforts.

Yulia had seen it differently.

To her, Inferus had been a lost cause. She had been more certain than anyone else that it would’ve been impossible for them to take it over. And she had also realized that, if the king were to decide that they were a threat, Inferus’ presence nearby would’ve made it easy for him to strike at them. And besides, as long as it was nearby to watch their every move, they wouldn’t be able to do anything major.

So, although the rest of them hadn’t given in easily, she eventually convinced them all that there was only one reasonable course of action – destroy the city utterly.

And that was what they’d done. They’d gathered their people – those people who had been fanatically loyal to them, but hadn’t yet done anything to come under the king’s particular attention – and they’d sent them into the city. And they’d had them set fire to it.

Inferus had burned. And so had all its people with it.

Even now, Gerhardt still didn’t like it. It had given them the space, the freedom to move and act that they had so desperately needed, and it had convinced people that maybe, just maybe, they would be able to do something. It had helped their efforts massively. But… that didn’t change the fact that it had been murder. Senseless, indiscriminate murder of anyone who’d happened to live in that city.

“Yes, Yulia,” Gerhardt said. “What of it?”

“Hm… I’m surprised you haven’t realized it yet. It’s simply that… I cannot help but see something of myself in this foe we are facing. Two rebels, two demons who wished, above all else, to overthrow the current order… and who would be willing to do anything to achieve that goal.”

Ah. So that was what it was.

Gerhard had heard Leonid’s report, of course. He’d heard of what had happened in the North… of the village that the rebels had burned.

They’d destroyed their people’s homes, even – as far as Leonid had been able to tell – killed some of their own people. And they’d done it all merely to gain an advantage for themselves in the war.

Almost like what had happened in Inferus.

And, Gerhardt realized, Yulia had been the first to propose the idea of releasing the old king from his prison…

Yes. Gerhardt supposed that… the two of them really were alike.

“Why are you telling me this, Yulia?”

“I can’t pretend anymore, Gerhardt,” she said. “We’ve done everything we could. I’ve done everything I could. It wasn’t enough. We’ve lost.”

Gerhardt’s gaze hardened. “…there is always a chance.”

Yulia sighed. “Do you truly believe that, Gerhardt? Or… is that merely what you want to believe?”

“I… cannot answer that, Yulia. I cannot be certain anymore. But… no matter what, we cannot give up. Even if there is no hope remaining.”

For a few moments, Yulia didn’t speak. She just looked down at the floor, thinking.

“Hm. Not too long ago, I would have scoffed at such an idea. But… now, I suppose it makes no difference in any case.” She looked up at him. “Very well, Gerhardt. Do as you please. Do whatever will bring you closure. But… allow me to tell you one thing.”

“What is it, Yulia?”

“At this point… there’s still time. There’s not much time, but there’s time. Whether or not you remain here and fight, the outcome will be the same. But… you still have time to flee. It may feel wrong, but trust me – it will not change anything. And at the very least, you will still be alive.”

Gerhardt looked at her suspiciously. “…why are you telling me this, Yulia?”

“Ah. You think it odd that I would be concerned about your life, do you?” She smiled. But there was a sad tinge to it. “I… have never let my concern for individuals dictate my actions before, true. I have always believed that the whole is more important. But now… it is as I have said. The whole will collapse anyway, regardless of what we do. So… I thought, if it doesn’t matter anyway… perhaps, at least one of us might survive.”

Gerhardt shook his head. “No, Yulia. You know I cannot. I could never simply flee and abandon my men to their fate.”

“I see,” Yulia nodded. “That is… what I expected.”

“And you, Yulia? You still have time to leave too.”

“You… are right,” she said. “But I have no intention of fleeing either. I’ve already made up my mind on that.”

“What will you do, then?”

She turned and began to walk down the corridor. Walk… down the direction that would lead her, eventually, to the doors of the Turrim Tenebris. Down the direction that would lead her right into the enemy’s path.

“Where are you going…?” Gerhardt asked, suddenly concerned.

“I… am going to meet my fate.”

The battle had been over in instants, though perhaps that should not have surprised Azal. Well, not much, anyways.

At an initial look, it seemed absurd. Now, at the end of it all, the stakes were at their highest. The Council was cornered, with nowhere left to go, nothing left to do but fight. If they failed here, they would fall, and the rebels would be the winners of the war. It seemed obvious that now, of all times, the Council’s men would fight their hardest.

But the Council’s men were still nothing but demons… nothing but people. And simple will and grit and tenacity conferred no supernatural powers. They had been unprepared for Azal’s attack when it had come, and they had been horribly outnumbered. Those two things combined into a nearly insurmountable disadvantage, no matter how much one didn’t want that to be true.

Of course… perhaps Azal wasn’t one to talk there. After all, he himself had overcome insurmountable odds several times now.

But just because he’d managed to be the exception several times in a row didn’t mean the reality had changed. The Council could put all its forces, all its resources into driving them back, do everything in their power to ensure that they would not fall here, or at least to make sure their last stand would be a thing of legend… but that wouldn’t change the truth of what was happening.

The real world was cold and cruel. It cared not for will or determination. There was only one thing it recognized: power.

And right now, Azal held all of that.

Which made sense. After all, this was the situation he’d always aimed for, wasn’t it? He had never been one for things like honor or glory. To him, there had always been only one thing that mattered. Victory… by any means necessary.

This was merely the natural culmination of that.

And besides, the real fight would come next. Azal and his men had scattered the Council’s men as they’d tried to make their stand in the city… but that would not be the place where their true last stand occurred. That would be inside the Turrim Tenebris itself.

Which was why it was time to strike at it… to take the fight to the Council one last time.

Azal rushed forward, and, together with his men, they barged through the doors of the Turrim Tenebris.

They were greeted with glimmering steel.

In front of them, across the great hall, the Council’s armies had assembled, one last time, to defend the great palace to their last breath. And at their helm stood… someone Azal recognized.

He’d never seen her in person before, of course. But he’d seen paintings of her. Anyone with any amount of culture had.

There, at the helm of the army gathered to make the Council’s last stand, stood Councillor Yulia.

And as Azal watched, she stepped forward. “Halt,” she called, and her voice echoed loud and clear throughout the room.

She looked across the room. “I wish to speak with the rebel leader.”

Azal looked around suspiciously. His army stood prepared for battle, seemingly unnerved by Yulia’s request… and, of course, he could understand why. It was not difficult to imagine that she had some design.

But… all the things Melthar had said to him before echoed in his mind.

If he merely slaughtered all opposition, if he suppressed everything that didn’t agree with him without even looking at it first… could he possibly claim to be standing for demonkind? It would be a risk, perhaps… but in this situation, it wasn’t as if Azal was defenseless. And after all he had done, he supposed the least he could do was hear the Council out.

“Step forward, then,” Azal said.

He expected some sort of resistance to that request.  But Yulia stepped forward calmly, walking away from the protection of her army – and even dropping the short sword she’d been holding.

Azal turned his head to the side and nodded once. Janus and Melthar detached themselves from the army, came to his side, and walked forward alongside him.

After a few seconds, seconds throughout which the room was permeated with a silence as still and anxious as that of the grave, they stood face to face. Azal stood just behind his two bodyguards. Even if he’d decided to hear her out, he still didn’t trust this Councillor.

Especially not after what he’d hear about her.

“Hm,” Yulia said. Verdoi like her were a rare sort of demon, and Azal couldn’t help but be unsettled by looking at her. She was thin, thin like an insect, and that mouth of hers seemed far too wide for her face… not to mention the unnatural, pitch black skin, or the insectoid eyes, or the long claws sprouting from her fingertips. The nearly skeletal wings coming from her back seemed almost to be the least disturbing part of her appearance.

“And here you are,” she said. “I cannot help but realize that even after all that has happened, I still know nothing about you. What your name is, what inspired you to do all this… before this moment, I didn’t even know what sort of demon you were. But then, none of that’s really important.”

Even if her appearance was unsettling, she spoke with a calm, educated tone… and there was more to it than that, too. In a normal person, one could always detect some sort of uncertainty to their words, some things said more on impulse than anything else. With Yulia, it was different. She spoke as if every word had been carefully picked out – and yet, she did it with no hesitation at all.

Azal could respect that.

“Then what is important?”

“At this point? Just one thing,” Yulia said. “Who are you?”

“What do you mean?”

“What do you believe? What do you want? Why did you do all this?” She glared at him, her gaze fierce – completely at odds with the situation. “After all you’ve done, I can’t help but respect you somewhat, so I’d like to imagine you aren’t just thirsty for power… but if that’s not the reason, then what is? Clearly, you don’t like us for some reason… so tell me. What is it?”

Azal frowned. But then again, he should’ve expected the question. Even if this wasn’t taking quite the direction he’d thought it would, he would’ve been foolish not to expect that to be asked at some point.

“It’s simple,” Azal said. “You… the Council… are all foolish dreamers. You strive and strive for your dream, for your wish to break free of Aead and live on Verta. In a way, it’s admirable. But…

“You forget one thing. You aren’t the only ones you’re responsible for. You are responsible for every single demon in this world, for every single person in your nation. Chasing an impossible dream is… fine. It’s not something I’d ever do, but, in a way, I suppose I can understand it. But you aren’t merely chasing your dream. You’re forcing every single demon, every single person here to chase it with you… and you’re forcing them to share whatever price you end up paying.”

“…I’d hope you’ve heard of this before,” Yulia said, a note of doubt entering her voice, “but the army is made up of volunteers. The men who pay the price are those who choose to.”

“I know,” Azal said.  “But it isn’t that simple. It’s not merely the wars, though I can’t say I like the fact that you throw away thousands of lives on something so unattainable. But you’re right – those who perish there are those who have chosen to risk their lives. But they aren’t the only ones who you’re hurting.

“At the end of the day, though, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that you wouldn’t realize. After all… that’s exactly what my problem with all this has been from the very start. You’re obsessed with your dream, obsessed with your endless war against mortals… and you’ve forgotten about everything else in the process. Have you seen what Redgate looked like before I took it over? The Baron was a fool, a tyrant, and a madman… and yet he was allowed to run free and do as he pleased, because you were all busy thinking about your war. All over Aead, dozens of cities and villages live barely under your supervision, governed not truly by you but by whoever happens to rule there… and sometimes, those people are good people, and the people who live in those places are lucky. But all too often, that isn’t the case…. and you never do anything about it, because you’re too busy thinking about your war.

“It’s consumed you. You can’t even be called the rulers of a nation anymore… merely the rulers of an army. You’ve put everything into your war, into your beautiful and yet oh so unachievable dream – and you’ve forgotten about your own people in the process. They deserve better, Yulia. They deserve better than a Council which barely even thinks about them. And if the price of that is to give up that dream… it’s a price I’ll gladly pay. Aead isn’t as bad as you seem to think it is.

“Oh, and… one more thing. You’ve learned, again and again, how large the difference in power between you and the mortals is. So let me ask you one thing – what happens when the mortals lose their patience? When that happens… what do you think will happen to demonkind? Do you think they will be merciful?”

Yulia stood with her arms folded, her eyes closed. Azal looked at her, waiting for her response.

Finally, she smiled.

“Hm. You know… a long time ago, I was very much like you,” she said. “From the start, I’d disagreed with the Council’s dream. From the start, I’d thought that they had to concentrate on what they had before they could possibly turn their thoughts elsewhere. But… I suppose I didn’t believe that with as much conviction as you do. It didn’t take them all that long, in the end, to convince me. Well… at first, I just went along with it because I realized I wouldn’t be able to change all their minds. But I supposed somewhere along the line, I began to believe in it myself.”

“Then, you agree?”

“Well… let me put it this way. It’s as you said. A dream isn’t a bad thing. But when you devote yourself to it to the exclusion of all else… when your dream becomes an obsession, when those who depend on you are left to suffer because that dream is all you can think of… you’re right. At that point, can you truly be a leader? Not even close.”

“I see,” Azal said. “Still, you are a Councillor. You understand that even if I try and negotiate with you, my people will never accept it.”

“Yes… you’re right,” Yulia said. “You’re exactly right.”

“Then why speak with me in the first place?” Azal asked. “If you knew I could not negotiate, why come out and talk anyway?”

Because I knew your people would never accept negotiation,” Yulia said. “Because even though I didn’t know what you wanted until now, even though I didn’t know who you were… I knew what rebellions were. I’ve been in one, after all. You’ve riled your people up into a frenzy… and now, they won’t calm down easily. They’ll demand blood. And the only way you’ll be able to get it all into any semblance of order is if they have what they want.”

Wait. If they have what they want…? What is she…

“You don’t mean…” Azal said.

“I do,” Yulia said. “It’s not in my nature to do anything for my enemies, but… even I have to face the truth at some point. All of us do. Well…” She smiled slightly. “No, perhaps not. I suppose you would probably continue fighting even at this point, wouldn’t you? But… I am hardly that confident. And at this point, the Council has already lost.

“Which means it isn’t about them. Not anymore. Now… the only thing left to think about is demonkind. And if your rebels are going to be the next ones to lead us… if they’re placed in charge without being given a chance to get what they’ve wished for all this time first… they’re just going to tear themselves apart. And they’ll take demonkind with them.

“And the only way for them to be satisfied is for them to watch a Councillor die in front of their eyes.”

Azal stared at her.

“Hmph.” She smiled. “What is it, rebel? Are you of all people feeling sorry for me now?”

“…perhaps… perhaps you are right, Yulia,” Azal said. “But… you are more right than anyone would hope. So far, I’ve been able to keep them in check. But if they get their hands on a Councillor… I don’t know what they will do to you.”

“Neither do I,” Yulia said. “But if I must be the sacrifice to ensure that demonkind can maintain order… then so be it.”

They both looked at each other.

Azal waited for a moment, waited for her to look away. She didn’t.

“I see,” he said. “Then… you are determined?”

“I wouldn’t have told you all this if I wasn’t.”

“Farewell, then, Yulia,” Azal said. “Thank you.”

“I’m not doing this for your sake. But regardless… I must leave the rest in your hands. The fate of demonkind is now under your control.” She narrowed her eyes and glared at him. “So… you had best lead them well. You’re the only one they’ll have now.”

“I will,” he said. “That much… I can swear to you.”

“Then I suppose that is enough.” She turned and took a single step before looking back, one last time. “And one more thing… what is your name?”

“Azal,” he said, nodding to her.

He expected some sort of response. But instead, she just turned away once more, said “I see,” and walked back to her men.

Azal turned and did the same.

As he returned to the front lines, his men raised their weapons.

“Go, men.”

He didn’t see what his men did to Yulia.

Perhaps that was for the better.

She was dead. That much was for certain. The battle hadn’t taken long, but it had been chaotic and hard-fought. The Council’s forces had refused to give in easily, and it showed. All around him, the ground was littered with corpses, nearly every single one of them having fought to the very last, weapons clutched in their hands even as they fell. In such chaos, there wouldn’t have been any opportunity to take prisoners.

And in any case, Yulia had been right. Regardless of whether or not it was possible, it wouldn’t have happened anyway.

This was the price of rebellion, Azal now saw. Perhaps, in the end, his path would be better for demonkind… but it would be a path paved with bones, surrounded by blood. And not all of those who died would be those who had to die. It wasn’t because of any cruel intention of his, or because he particularly hated the Council, or, for that matter, because of anything he had done. It was merely a necessary consequence of stirring up the people to rebellion. Once it begun, it was nearly impossible to stop until all those the people saw as “enemies” were dead and gone.

Yulia had been an “enemy”. But she hadn’t had to die. Azal knew that if she had to, if she saw that the Council didn’t have any hope left of winning, she’d have worked with him. Perhaps she’d have even prevented more unnecessary bloodshed… and once it was all over, she certainly would’ve been able to help him. After all, he was under no illusions. After chaos like this, ruling would not be easy. Having an experienced Councillor to help him out would have been an enormous help.

But, of course, she’d been an “enemy”.

So there’d always only been one possibility.

And now, that one possibility had come to pass. She’d died at the hands of the mob, in some way Azal didn’t particularly care to imagine. It had been her sacrifice, her way to allow Azal’s people to have the satisfaction of striking back at their “oppressors”… and, quite possibly, the only reason Azal would be able to get his men under control once all this was over.

Well… it was too late to go back now. He’d made his choice, and he’d committed to it. He couldn’t back out anymore.

“Go, men!” he yelled as he sprinted further into the Turrim Tenebris. He didn’t know what fraction of the Turrim’s defenders his men had killed in that initial battle. At this point, it had quite possibly been over half. But of course, he couldn’t really make any guesses like that. He had no way of knowing.

All that he knew was that he had to keep going.

They rushed through the castle, storming through the hallways and rooms and chambers. He didn’t know the exact layout of the place, but he’d heard that the Council Chamber was supposed to be somewhere around the center. So the only thing he could do was head towards the center.

He pushed through doors upon doors, rushing through the castle. The sooner this was all over with, the better.

As he opened one of the doors and stepped through into what looked like some particularly wide hallway, he heard something behind him. He stopped, turned, and saw the Council’s men crowding around the door. As his own men ran in, the guards of the Turrim Tenebris turned and closed in on them, trying to use the surprise and attack them from both sides at once. It wasn’t a half-bad tactic, really. Nothing extraordinary, certainly, but it was a move that could’ve worked.

Of course, the difference in numbers was now simply too large.

It was ironic, in a way. Just a short time ago, he had been the one to be horribly outnumbered, to have to struggle to secure a victory even in a circumstance where he had all the advantages. Just a short time ago, he and his Bloodhorns had been the underdog, trying desperately to fight off the Council which was so much more powerful than them. Just a short time ago, a situation like this would have seemed like a dream come true, a chance to finally topple the oppressors that had caused them so much harm and trouble.

But now, he was the one whose forces hopelessly outnumbered the enemy. He was the one with an overwhelming advantage. The Council he was fighting against was now the underdog – and, unlike him, it didn’t seem like they had the capability to overcome their disadvantage. All he was doing now was finishing off an already-defeated opponent.

And Azal simply… found himself unable to derive any satisfaction from something like that. Even though this situation would have seemed ideal just a scant few days ago, now that he was the one actually carrying out this finishing blow… he couldn’t help but feel that he understood all too well how the Council must have been feeling at the moment.

Not just in the sense that he understood how it felt to be defeated like this – though he did. But rather… he felt he understood what the Council believed. He understood how much they felt – they knew – that they were in the right, that the rebels were the evil ones… just as much as the rebels knew that they were in the right, and that the Council was evil.

Which of them was right? There was no way to tell. Though, in such a situation… did something like being ”right” even exist?

For as much as their attack had been a good one, for as much as they fought bravely and without fear… the Bloodhorns cleared out the Council’s men within but a few minutes. Within the crowd, Azal thought that, just for a moment, he saw a face he recognized – a face that he recalled from the portraits he’d seen again and again. The face of Councillor Daniel.

Was he really here, or was it just Azal’s eyes playing tricks on him? More likely the former, Azal decided. After all, there would have to be someone leading the group of men. In a situation such as this, a Councillor seemed like the most likely candidate.

Assuming Azal was right, he already knew what had happened to him. He’d been killed, killed without ceremony or dignity. Simply run down by the vast mob of rebels.

And even if he wasn’t… well, it would happen soon enough anyway. It would be the same thing that would happen to all the Councillors.

From there, it wasn’t much longer until Azal made it to the Council Chamber itself. Inside, as he’d expected, he found himself greeted by an army. The Council’s last defenders, all gathered together for a single, desperate, last stand.

At the front of the army stood Councillors Gerhardt and Adrien.

“So, you’ve arrived,” Gerhardt said, looking coldly at Azal and the Bloodhorns.

“Yes,” Azal nodded.

“Know that we will not make this easy for you,” Gerhardt said. “If you wish to rule, then we will fight to our last breaths to stop you.”

“I know,” Azal said, a small frown on his face.

And just one battle later, the throne of demonkind was his.

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Chapter 44: Towards the End

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The Archdemon.

First off, if half the things Melthar had said about him were true, the idea of the Council intentionally releasing him was idiotic from the beginning.

Nevertheless… a “contingency.” That was what the Council reportedly had. And if it was something so powerful that the Council sincerely believed it could turn the tide in such a situation, and more than that, if it was something that the Council was so hesitant to use that they had put it off until now

Before, Azal hadn’t had any knowledge about any “contingencies” the Council possibly had. Now, he not only had the information that they had one, he also had at least one guess as to what it was. A good guess…? Perhaps not. If the Council had managed to overthrow such a being in the first place, they would have had to be insane to not simply kill him there and then – and if they had proceeded with the idiotic plan of sealing him away, unsealing him afterwards would be the height of stupidity. It would mean the end of the Council’s rule.

Then again… would the Council even know of the true extent of the Archdemon’s powers? From the way Melthar had told it, the majority of their rebellion seemed to have consisted of battling the Archdemon’s forces, not the Great Power himself – and when he eventually was incapacitated and sealed, it had been due to a surprise attack while he had been distracted by a simultaneous massive attack on his capital. Considering the circumstances, it was entirely possible that no one who the Council would take seriously had even witnessed the Archdemon’s powers in the first place. True, they must have known he was a powerful mage – it would be impossible to not become aware of that at some point, and besides, if they didn’t know at least that much, they wouldn’t have tried using him like this – but it was entirely possible the true depth of his powers was wholly unknown to the Council.

And besides, the account of the Archdemon’s powers Melthar had given him was from Lein’s last moments – from what, according to Avylia, was a complete account of Lein’s final battle, derived from the psychic link she shared with the other Great Powers (Azal had wondered whether they could not simply use that ability to find out whether the Archdemon was free, but apparently, the barrier had been in place for so long that the link to him was now almost certainly gone). During that battle, the Archdemon himself had said his powers had grown – and Lein had seemed surprised by just how much they had grown. It clearly had not been an insubstantial change. And yet, the Council would only know of what he had been like before being sealed away – back when, quite possibly, he had been far weaker than he was now. Seen in that light, the Council’s decision to do something like this seemed… still foolhardy, certainly. But nowhere near as improbable as Azal would have considered it otherwise.

Of course, it was still just a theory at this point. And yet… it was a terrifying one. An enemy who wielded magical power unlike anything seen on this world (or on Verta), who could subjugate demons to his will whenever he wished, who would surely be able to build up at least some sort of an army made up of those who would end up being too terrified to oppose him… fighting such a foe would be a daunting task. Even Melthar, whose powers were more suited to one-on-one combat, could prove deadly on the field of battle. A Great Power whose command of magic was perfectly suited to destroy large droves of soldiers at once… would it even be possible to fight such a monster?

The implication was clear. Theory or not, unconfirmed or not… it was a distinct possibility. And as long as that remained true, Azal would have to prepare.

But… that could be done later. The barrier that kept the Archdemon contained was in Altermin, a nation in Verta. Some quick calculations had told Azal that the Council would never be able to get even a single person there in the short amount of time Azal needed to transport his troops with Melthar’s help. Even if it was true that their contingency was the Archdemon, they would not be able to release him until quite a while after Azal’s troops were already at Merdrun’s walls.

And that meant that until the Archdemon arrived, Azal still had time. Time to finish what he had started… to finally tear control of demonkind from the Council’s hands.

It was time to take Merdrun.

It was the second time Azal had carried out a siege. Of course, the first time, the entire siege had been a farce – merely a distraction from Azal’s true plan. This time, there was no “true plan.” This was exactly what it seemed like. A battle pitting the Bloodhorns’ army against the walls of Merdrun, pitting the will and ferocity and fury of the people against the unyielding might of the stone citadel that had ruled these lands for centuries. A battle of sheer force and will.

So this time, Azal had made sure to be prepared.

He hadn’t had much time. Of course he hadn’t. Melthar could accelerate the movement of troops massively, but that also meant there was far less time for preparation before the battle began. But then, he’d had to move as fast as he possibly could before the Council could recover – and if he had to sacrifice some preparation to do that, it was a sacrifice he was willing to make at this stage.

But what time he had had was put to as much use as he could possibly manage.

Siege engines had been built. Steel equipment scavenged from battlegrounds had been refitted and reused, equipping Azal’s army with as much high-quality equipment as possible. Arrows had been produced. Azal had had Melthar take the most experienced troops to the battlefield first and used the time to give the less experienced ones some last-minute instructions. And in addition to transporting the troops, Azal had also had Melthar scan the Council’s capital from above, finding out as much about his defences as he possibly could. It was all far from an ideal amount of preparation, perhaps… but Azal had done the best he could have. For once, he had the advantage in this war. It would have been stupid to not use it for all it was worth.

And the geography of Merdrun had provided them some additional advantages as well. The city lay near a range of mountains, the towering peaks rising into the air like a great throne for the city itself – no doubt something the Archdemon had considered when deciding where to build his capital, and something the Council had merely inherited from him. Ordinarily, the mountains would have blocked off any attempts to enter the city from that side and served as a decent natural defence, at least making sure any enemy who tried to attack would have to attack from one direction only… but it seemed that centuries of being the sole rulers of Aead had made the Council complacent. There was a pass through the mountains, near the edges of the range – and it was completely undefended. Which meant that all of a sudden, the mountains had gone from an impenetrable defense to an excellent way for Azal to conceal his troops.

They were set up already, all sitting in a camp on the other side of the mountains and just waiting for the order to be given. And recently, Melthar had finished his final run, transporting the last few elements of the army over to their destination – and, finally, he had also transported Azal himself there, making sure he would be able to oversee the battle (the other relevant leaders of the Bloodhorns – Alexander, Janus, and Darius – had already been transported earlier). Now, it was time for that order that the men had been awaiting.

Azal turned to Alexander, who nodded once. “So, we’re going?” the angel asked.

“Of course,” Azal said.

Alexander smiled slightly. “Very well.”

The concealment part of the strategy, at least, had clearly worked just as well as Azal had hoped it would.

As they approached Merdrun’s walls, even when they were still quite a distance away, it was clear what they were seeing. The Council wasn’t ready. They must have been expecting Azal’s troops to march to their capital the old-fashioned way, a journey that would’ve taken at least a week and a half, and probably more. To them, it would’ve seemed impossible for the Bloodhorns to be here already.

Excellent.

The Council hadn’t seen the troops gathering on the other side of the mountain range, so as far as it had been aware until a moment ago, they still had nothing to fear for a while. They had thought they would still have time to prepare, to make sure their remaining troops would be prepared. But Azal had given them no such luxury.

They rushed through the mountain pass as fast as they possibly could. They’d had to sacrifice some coherence and order to do it, but if they could reach the walls before the Council was ready, it would be worth it. If they attacked the walls before the Council could even start defending them, they’d be able to get into the city with nearly no resistance whatsoever. If they could do that, they would be able to bypass the most difficult part of attacking a major city entirely. Everything after that would be easier.

The gambit paid off.

By the time the Bloodhorns’ troops came near the wall, the Council’s forces were still only just getting onto the wall themselves, surprised and unprepared for battle… and, of course, now quite outnumbered. But whether or not the enemy was outnumbered, it made no sense to Azal not to use every advantage he could possibly get.

He signaled the catapults.

Enormous stones flew forth at Merdrun’s walls, shattering the rock they were built of. Nearly any Vertan capital’s walls would be able to withstand such an attack, but that was the Council’s problem – they had grown complacent a long time ago. The Archdemon hadn’t bothered with walls in the first place, trusting his armies and his own power to strike down any attackers. The Council had built them, attempting to pre-emptively defend against any potential mortal invasion… but after centuries had passed without such an attack, the Council, it seemed, had entirely forgotten about the possibility. Even as Vertan defenses had (according to Melthar) gotten stronger and tougher over time, progressing to the point where catapults had become nearly useless, the Council’s defenses had merely stayed the same, stagnating – and even deteriorating due to the fact that, for a long time now, no one had truly cared enough to put serious work into maintaining them. After all, the Council ruled all of Aead, and the mortals had never tried to attack before. Why bother with defense?

Time and time again, Azal had seen what that sort of thinking had done to the Council’s capability to resist attacks. It had begun at the very start. No self-respecting Vertan ruler would allow any city to be as poorly defended against attack as Baron Amar had made Redgate. The walls had been shoddy at best, the tower itself was a horrid defensive structure, the men defending it had been more or less ceremonial and had barely had any real training… the entire city had barely had any defenses at all before Azal had taken it over. And after that, too, so much of what the Council did spoke of just how complacent they’d gotten. They’d sent almost all of their forces to crush the rebellion, a decision that had allowed the Bloodhorns to nearly destroy the Council’s capability to fight by just winning a single battle – and they’d done it because they had gotten complacent. After all, if there were still another enemy which could have attacked, the Council would never have sent all of their troops away; they would have kept at least a decent amount of them in Merdrun, to make sure it was defended. And besides, if they had faced more challenges over the years, perhaps they wouldn’t have been so sure of their army’s ability to defeat the rebels in the first place.

If the Council hadn’t been so complacent, Azal probably wouldn’t have been able to start this rebellion in the first place. Nor would he have ever obtained the chance that he had now – the chance that he had only gotten because he had been able to obliterate almost all of the Council’s army in a single battle. And even if he had gotten that chance, he wouldn’t have been able to tear through Merdrun’s walls so easily, nor would he be faced with such an unprepared enemy. But they had been… and that had been enough for Azal’s rebellion to succeed.

It was ironic, in a way. The Council had always dedicated themselves fully to their impossible dream, always done everything they possibly could to get a foothold on Verta. In that sense, they were some of the most dedicated, determined people Azal had ever known of… and yet in their rush to accomplish that one goal, they had forgotten about everything else. Including the simple matter of defending themselves.

A long, long time ago, the Council themselves had stood in Azal’s shoes, fighting to overthrow their own leader – the old king, the Archdemon. But now, those who had once been rebels fighting for a righteous cause had themselves become what they had sworn to never be. Now, the Council themselves had become a blight on demonkind, a group of rulers that could think about nothing else but their impossible dream – and, worse still, one that would continue throwing away demon lives and putting the future of demonkind itself in jeopardy just for the smallest chance of achieving it. Now, it was time for them themselves to be torn down.

A long time ago, the Council had fought the First Battle of Merdrun here, facing off against the armies of the Archdemon.

Now, it was time for the Second Battle of Merdrun to begin.

Dust.

Dust and vague noise was all Azal could make out from the battlefield. But that told him enough. The catapults had done their job, and the Council hadn’t even managed to get its men into position quickly enough to so much as stall them, much less actually stop them. By now, Azal couldn’t tell what was happening nearer the wall, but he knew what would be happening anyway. He knew that, even though the cloud of dust still hadn’t settled, even though the ruined wall had still not finished its collapse, his engineers would already be setting up ramps, ensuring that the Bloodhorns’ troops would be easily able to climb onto the walls’ ruins. It would be far faster than attempting to use ladders would have been, and it would defeat any attempt to use the walls as a defensive structure… though, Azal supposed, the catapult barrage had most likely done that already.

The sounds of battle reached Azal’s ears, the repeating clash of steel on steel and the sound of blades ripping flesh. Somewhere inside the cloud, his men had come into contact with what Council forces had managed to get here in time… but that didn’t matter. There could only be one possible outcome of such a battle. The Council was unprepared, underequipped (at least in comparison to the Bloodhorns), and outnumbered. They could not win this battle.

Their time was over.

At last, the dust settled down enough for Azal to see, and what he saw confirmed his predictions. The last bastions of the Council’s defense were falling before his men. Even as he watched, the walls were breached, his men overran the few enemies who had attempted to put up a fight, and the remainder of the Council’s forces withdrew, presumably trying to stall for time and try to figure out a way to defend the city itself.

Azal strolled forward through the carnage. As he walked, he looked ahead, and he saw the shattered corpses of the Council’s men. He couldn’t help but note that those men had almost certainly believed in their own causes and their own loyalty every bit as much as Azal himself did, and as those loyal to him did. To them, Azal had surely been the evil one. And yet, they had fallen. And they would continue to fall.

Of course, not all that long ago, Azal would never have taken any notice of something like that. But then, that had been before he had seen what battle did. That had been before he had walked across the walls of Redgate, before he had seen how the aftermath truly looked… before he had seen the corpses littering the wall, more bodies than he could possibly count piled up on the cold, merciless stones, cold and bleeding and mauled and dead.

That, he supposed… had given him somewhat of a new perspective on things.

Indeed… now, he could not help but find it regrettable. The men his men were slaying were, themselves, good men. That was not to insinuate that he now believed that he was the villain, or that his men were evil. They were good men as well… but they were good men according to their own definitions and values, and the enemy was composed of those who were good men according to theirs.

And that was all it took.

That was all it took to get those good men to slaughter each other. Simply because they had different perspectives, simply because they had different beliefs and thoughts and opinions – simply because they had ideas that, to the other side, had to appear evil – they were willing to tear each other to pieces. The men on the Bloodhorns’ side of the conflict believed that the Council was evil, and that all its followers were merely supporters of its tyranny. The men on the Council’s side believed that the Council was good, that the rebels were trying to overthrow them for simple power, and that all its supporters were power-hungry, remorseless killers. And he had to admit…

From a certain point of view, both points of view were correct.

But that did not matter. Not right now. It was regrettable, yes… but from the start, he had been fighting for his beliefs. Even if he had begun to doubt himself somewhat, his beliefs themselves had not changed. And at this stage… there could be no other conclusion. He would have to finish what he had started.

He looked at the city of Merdrun through the cloud of dust, seeing the great black palace rising up from the center. The Turrim Tenebris… his goal. The Council’s seat of power, the castle out of which they had forced the Archdemon and from which they had taken control themselves. He knew, by now, of the Council’s pride. So he could be sure of one thing: Even as the Bloodhorns approached, the Council would not flee their palace. He would find them at the center of their dominion… and there, like they had done to the old king so long ago, he would cast them down.

Of course, even if they were to try and flee… Azal had no intention of allowing that.

With the walls shattered, the Council’s last true line of defense had fallen almost without a fight. It was satisfying, though, in a way, oddly sobering at the same time. There would be no great final battle, no last triumph for the rebels’ army. That had all been back at Redgate. Now… the Council’s forces were already shattered. Azal’s surprise attack had easily swept away their final plan. At this point, all that was left were the formalities.

But in any case, it was time. Time to, at last, do what this had all been leading up to from the very start.

“Let’s go, men,” Azal said. He didn’t shout, or even raise his voice that much. But his words resonated through the silent air, and at once, his men readied themselves.

Azal marched forwards, the army of the Bloodhorns behind him, to bring an end to the Council.

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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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