Elrith sat across from Michael with his arms crossed over his chest. There was a low table between the two generals with a map placed on top of it. Some squares and flags, representing their forces and the enemy forces, were scattered about. “Have you gone senile, old man?” Elrith asked as he swept the pieces off the board and started placing them down again. “How did you even become a general with such terrible tactics?”
“I don’t want to be lectured on tactics by a brat who suicide rushed into the enemy’s base by himself,” Michael said and snorted, but he made no motion to stop Elrith from replacing the pieces.
“That was done for strategic reasons,” Elrith said, his face hardening. “I discovered the location of their camp on the third day I arrived. You might as well have been twiddling your thumbs for the past two weeks.”
“I had their general location pinned down,” Michael said. “I didn’t want to lose any more scouts while waiting for your army to arrive.”
“Don’t blame your incompetence on me,” Elrith said and slammed a flag onto the map. “If you sent your scouts, maybe my army would’ve received real information. Do you know how many people died because of your misinformation?”
“Now who’s pinning the blame on who?” Michael asked and furrowed his brow. He picked up a piece that represented Ishim’s army and placed it beside the formation Elrith was creating. “What do you if this happens? You’re not so sharp yourself.”
“Obviously, I smash it to pieces,” Elrith said and snorted as he intercepted Michael’s piece with three of his own.
“You’d use the captured prisoners?” Michael asked and frowned.
“They were only fighting against us due to the influence of Solra,” Elrith said. “We’ll give them a chance to redeem themselves. I had them captured and not killed for a reason.”
“I dislike your methods,” Michael said and crossed his arms over his chest.
“Well your methods are shit. Isn’t that why you called me here?”
“I called you because Pyre asked me to.”
“You mean the person who ran away and kidnapped my attendant?”
“Your attendant ran off with my tactician!”
The two generals glared at each other, neither willing to turn away. Elrith was the one who broke the silence. “A challenge then,” he said. “We’ll storm the enemy base. Whoever’s army racks up the most kills, prisoners, and achievements wins. Loser has to kiss the others feet in front of the army.”
“Deal!” Michael said and slapped his hand against the table. “We set off tomorrow.”
“Great,” Elrith said and smiled, his face softening. The hard demeanor from earlier completely disappeared as he stood up and chuckled before leaving.
Michael furrowed his brow and watched Elrith leave his tent. He couldn’t get rid of the sinking feeling in his stomach. The formation Elrith left behind on the map caught his eye. It was an image of two armies making a beeline towards the enemy camp just like how Elrith proposed his challenge. Michael growled. “I’ve been had. Cheeky bastard.” He snorted and flipped the table over before exiting the tent.
He stood in front of his tent and watched his soldiers practice their lance drills. Ever since they heard Solra was capable of negating all powers in a large area, they focused doubly hard on the basics. “Listen up!” Michael shouted, his voice amplified by the wind. The soldiers stopped and turned to face him. “We set off tomorrow. Tonight we feast!” All of the newer soldiers cheered while the older while the older soldiers’ faces hardened. They’ve been through enough battles to know the only time the higher-ups were generous enough to give them a feast was when there was a high chance of dying the next day. Michael nodded and watched his soldiers resume their drills. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Elrith approaching the group of prisoners.
Elrith pursed his lips as he made his way over to the prisoners. They were sitting around a fire, eating stew. Raea was still near them, sitting with Owen. He let out a sigh and ran a hand through his hair before adopting a stern expression. Raea raised her head when she saw him approach. Whenever he looked at her serpentine eyes, his stomach sank. Maybe he had been rash in writing that letter to their parents. He cleared his throat. “Prisoners,” he said. “Listen up because I’m only going to say this once.” His voice wasn’t loud, but all the angels stopped eating and turned around to look at him.
“General Michael wished to have you all executed for treason,” he said. The soldiers’ expressions flickered and dimmed. It was like watching an army put out their bonfires before marching. He paused. “But I convinced him not to.” The bonfires were lit once again. “I convinced him to give all of you a second chance even though the ones you ambushed were my men. Tomorrow, we’re setting off in a raid against the enemy. Those of you who wish to be redeemed will join a new regiment led by”—he gestured towards Owen—“this greater angel.” His gaze passed over the prisoners. “You have until tonight to make your decision. Go to General Michael when you decide.” He whirled around and left, not sparing Raea a glance. He couldn’t afford to be embarrassed after making that speech.
Two prisoners sitting on the edge of the crowd looked at each other. “Isn’t that Owen?” Gerome asked.
Carmella nodded. “I wonder why he’s qualified to lead us,” she said.
“Should we join them?” Gerome asked.
“Of course,” Carmella said. “Why not? Always join the team with the highest chance of winning.”
“But you threw Owen under the carriage when Ishim captured us,” Gerome said, his voice trailing off.
“Don’t worry about it,” Carmella said and laughed. “Raea’s there too, see? Besides, I don’t think Owen’s the type to hold a grudge. And it wasn’t even that bad.”
Gerome made a face. “If you say so,” he said. “I did say I’d follow you no matter what decision you’d make.”
Carmella kissed Gerome and patted his back. “Let’s go. Remember not to provoke Palan,” she said. Gerome nodded and touched his lips before following after Carmella, the chains on their legs jangling as they walked. The two approached Owen and Raea who were having a one-sided conversation of Raea nagging Owen. Carmella cleared her throat. “Lady Raea,” she said.
“Carmella!” Raea said while standing. “And Gerome! You two were alive!” Owen’s face hardened as Carmella smiled and winked at him before she hugged Raea. Owen snorted and looked the other way, unwilling to ruin Raea’s good mood by accusing Carmella of her minor betrayal. It really wasn’t that bad.
“Oh,” Cleo said. “I recognize you two now.” She nodded and made a circle around Gerome. “The chains really suit you.”
“Thanks? I guess,” Gerome said and scratched his head. “It’s good to see you again, Cleo. Still haven’t grown up, I see.” Cleo puffed her cheeks out and clawed Gerome’s thigh, leaving four lines of blood. She sniffed and turned her head away while closing her eyes.