After several days of travel Jellal finally arrived and his company at the front lines of the campaign. Much to Jellal's distress the entire outfit appeared to be in total disarray. Factions of the army secluded themselves in their own corners of the campsite. There didn't appear to be any order amongst the chaos. The remaining officers struggled to keep as much order amongst the soldiers as they could. Jellal noticed that the army appeared smaller than it should. He knew that it must have been due to desertion. With no one to keep the men in order, many must have just up and left. Especially with the onslaught of Duke's forces, there was little to no chance of victory. Why bother dying for a war that you've already lost?
Jellal peered over to Eric as the former slaver had the same worried expression on his brow. Jellal knew that deep down Eric did not want to be there. Not because of the fighting, no, the opportunity for a fight would make a man like Eric salivate. He had the same worry that Jellal had seen before. In the eyes of men who knew that there was no victory to be had. Though neither he nor Eric were gallant warriors destined to have their names in song for the deaths. No, they had not acquired any reputation that would allow their names to live on even after they had passed from the world.
Jellal and his companions rode down into the camp. Most of the men sat, huddled around flickering fires. They ate scraps of bread and nibbled on what meat remained on bones. Another reason for desertion Jellal knew, and he couldn't blame them. There were no rations left. The army had not moved like they were supposed to, and because of that they had lost valuable food and supplies. It was a mess, how did Makarov plan on having Jellal fix all this?
A young soldier met with Jellal upon them entering the camp.
"Halt, name and business," the young soldier demanded.
"My name is Jellal Fernandez, Lord Makarov sent me here. Where is Mast Gildarts?"
"He's at the officer's tent with the others," the young soldier replied. "Here, follow me."
Jellal followed the young soldier through the rest of the camp, seeing that it didn't get any better the further he ventured inwards. The young man led Jellal to the front of the tent where he left him. Gildarts sat lurched over paper and maps. There were three other officers in uniform standing beside him. Jellal said nothing as he approached, Eric followed behind him.
"Gildarts?" Jellal said approaching the table.
Gildarts grunted as he peered up as he saw Jellal standing there in front of him. He grinned widely as he stood up, and with wide arms, walked over to embrace the young noble in a hug.
"Jellal, good to see you," Gildarts said with a few pats. "I got Makarov's letter that you were placed in command of the allied forces. No offense, but thank the gods, I was never suited to fill the role of a commander. Though I am sorry to say, but we are in one hell of a shitty situation."
"Yeah, looks like it," Jellal sighed.
"What in the seven hells happened here?" Eric said as he peered around the tent. The other officers looked pale, and dreary. They hadn't endured that much conflict but already their energy was drained from their bodies. The ordeal that they endured from the stress of the situation had taken its toll.
"An explosion," Gildarts grunted. "Nearly whipped out the entire command. I was fortunate enough to have been led away from it just before it was detonated. Unfortunately, we've already lost every single member of the high command. And on top of that our scouts have reported that Duke and his army are only a few days march from our current position. While he's on the move, Mila's Navy has already set sail for several of the coastal cities that we've claimed and taken them back. We're as good as dead sitting here, and most of the men know that. We're out numbered, out nourished and fucked in more ways than a seasoned whore."
"Looks like you inherited one fine mess Jellal," Eric mumbled.
"I am sorry Jellal, the problem is I don't know how to fully handle this situation. I was not taught to be an officer."
"Aren't there any other officers that could fill the role instead?" Eric asked.
"None of the other officers have the experience, expertise or respect as Gildarts," replied one of the other officers. "One of the primary reasons the alliance has stayed intact this long is that the men still respect Gildarts, but if there is nothing to keep the soldiers hopeful, they'll soon leave. I am sorry but I do not understand why Makarov sent you here under these circumstances. The men don't know you, they don't trust you and if they in any way find out your prier affiliation with Duke they'll be even more inclined to abandon the ranks."
"How— how do you know about that?" Jellal asked.
"I told them," Gildars sighed. "The officers have every right to know who they are serving under. As do the men, but we barely have enough troops to secure a castle let alone fight an entire war."
"And we must apologize sir, but we see no incentive to trust you here and no. To be quite honest we're baffled by Makarov's decision. Noble or not, you are in no way qualified to lead an army, let alone an army that is standing against your former king and countrymen," one of the officers said. "With all due respect."
"He knows Duke; he knows his methods, his tactics, what ticks him off and how to manipulate him. Trust in Makarov, he's wiser than all of us."
"Yes, but if Laxus is far more apposite for the role than this man. No offense," said one of the officers.
"Little taken," Jellal grumbled. "But what were you saying about Laxus? How is he?"
"He's recovering," Gildarts answered. "The force of the blast knocked him for a loop, but for the most part he's okay. He wants out of bed, but the doctors advise he stay put until he has recovered completely. But," Gildarts exhaled as he plumped himself back in his chair, "with Duke's armies on the approach, we might not have any other choice at the moment unfortunately."
"Can you take me to him?" Jellal asked. "I have some important issues I need to discuss with him. Something vital."
"Very well. Lyon!" Gildarts called out.
"Yes sir?" Lyon answered as he entered through the back of the tent.
"Can you escort Jellal to the medical tent to see Laxus?"
"Actually Gildarts, perhaps it would be better if you accompanied us as well. The information I need to discuss with him also includes you."
"Sure," Gildarts groaned annoyed that he had to stand back up so soon. "Let's go."
Gildarts led Jellal, Lyon and Eric to the tent where Laxus resided. Inside Jellal could see the full damage the explosion had on the survivors. Many of the men were maimed, limbs were blown off, skin was seared and large gashes were hidden behind blood stained bandages. Eric made a disgusted face, but for Lyon and Gildarts this was just a normal site for them. They had born witness to the actual carnage of the blast, and even helped haul some of these men to the beds themselves. Row after row was filled with injured men. Many of them were lying unconscious, either drunk to relieve the pain or napping. There was one boy in particular that caught Jellal's eye. Half his face was bandage as chunks of his black hair were burned from his scalp.
Gildars continued to lead them past the beds, as they drew the attention of those that were awake. That same boy eyed Jellal suspiciously. He couldn't have been any older than fifteen. His one free, grey eye was a ghostly pink, with little flecks of former hazelnut blended into the entire eyeball. Jellal wondered if the boy could see, but since the eye was following him, he assumed that it did. He couldn't help but think of how tragic that must have been for a young man his age. He wondered if the boy had seen his last days of war, but unfortunately that was most unlikely so.
Finally, near the end of the row they found Laxus in his bed, struggling against the grip of a nurse. A bandage was wrapped around his scalp while another one covered his torso. His arms were free it took the strength of five nurses to heed his movements, but still he pressed forward. Gildarts sighed, annoyed at the sight. Jellal guessed that this must not have been all that uncommon.
"I told you I'm fine!" Laxus barked as he took a step, dragging the nurses with him.
"Sir please, the doctor said—"
"The doctor says a lot of things, doesn't mean I have to listen to all of them. I know my body better than anyone, and I feel fine. I have to return to the front. There's no time for me to waste stuck in bed like a useless baby."
"If you push yourself too much you could die," one of the nurses said.
"I'll die regardless if I just sit here when we lose the war. At least let me die with dignity. At least let me die with some honor."
"Don't worry you'll get your chance. All of us will," Gildarts said.
"Gildarts?" Laxus said confused. He finally stopped long enough for the nurses to stand back up to their feet. "Jelllal?" He was even more perplexed now. "What are you doing here?"
"Jellal was sent here by your old man to take command of the Alliance's army," Gildarts answered.
"Really?" Laxus said baffled. "Why would my grandfather send him to lead the army?"
"That's a question most people are wondering," Eric replied.
"And who are you?" Laxus asked.
"Names Eric, but you can call me Cobra."
"No, I'm not going to do that," Laxus replied. "Tell me Jellal, do you have much experience commanding military forces?" Laxus asked.
"No," he answered shaking his head. "I have military training, but very little command experience."
"Oh, fantastic, this is exactly what we need right now," Laxus grunted as he dropped onto his bed. The nurses all huffed, displeased with him but he just ignored it. He rubbed his hands over his bandaged head and through his golden mane was he contemplated what to do next. "A military leader who has no experience in command? What was the old man thinking?"
"It doesn't matter anymore. Right now we have to figure out what to do about our predicament. I know Duke, I know how he'll react and I can speculate his possible attack. But I need you Laxus, I know that the men will follow you and Gildarts. I know Makarov wants to keep you safe right now—"
Laxus cut Jellal off. "Safe? Safe! I'm in the middle of a war, what part of any of this is considered safe? I'm the captain of the Magnolia Guard. I put myself in danger all the time. What makes this any different? Yeah, granted I haven't had the best of luck lately staying safe and injury free: gods know why that is, but I can't just command from a bed. I need to be out there, out in the fire and the fighting. I don't know why the old man feels the need to keep me safe."
"Probably because Mira is pregnant," Eric grumbled out loud.
The group went silent as Laxus's eyes went wide. Both Gildarts and Jellal glowered at Eric with dissatisfied glares.
"Oh, wait, that was supposed to be a secret right?" Eric didn't sound like he cared too much for leaking out the sensitive information. "My fault. I forgot."
"Mira's pregnant?" Laxus whispered. "Why didn't anyone tell me?"
"To keep you from panicking," Gildarts answered. "You have enough to worry about with the war, there's no need to have you worry about Mira and your child as well."
"Of course I worry about Mira. I worry about her every day. Why wouldn't I? She's my wife!"
"And now that she is with child, that stress is even worse for you," Gildarts said. "Makarov wants to keep you safe for your son or daughter. Your grandfather doesn't want your child to grow up with his father. That's why Makarov wants to keep you safe."
"And what kind of father would I be if I did just lie sick in bed instead of fighting? How can I go home and look my family in the eye knowing that I used my injuries as an excuse to stay out of a war that could determine their own lives. What kind of a man would I be? There are plenty of men who have families of their own that are still here, fighting in the war. And yet you ask me to sit it out because my wife happens to be pregnant. I can't do it. I won't do it. I rather die in the midst of battle than go home in shame. Telling me I have a child on the way only gives me that much more incentive to fight, cause now I have more than just my wife to fight for, now I have a child to fight for."
"Okay," Jellal said. "I need Laxus's help anyways."
"There's no use arguing this any further Gildarts. And we need Laxus anyways. He knows how to command, I know the strategy and you have the full experience. It's going to take all of us if we stand a chance against Duke. And before you even try to argue, as the commander of the Allied forces, I order that Laxus serve beside me in the upcoming batt.e."
"Then what's the plan?" Laxus asked. A satisfied smirk crossed his lips. Gildarts sighed in defeat.
The group returned to the officer's tent where they laid out a large map that was wide enough to cover the surface of the table. A group of young officers stood around Jellal, Gildarts and Laxus as the three leaders peered down at the parchment before them. A large red circle labeled the encampment of the alliance's forces and a few other circles estimated the location of Duke's forces. A large army marching towards them while they were in disarray ready to finish them off through sheer force. It was a quick and bloody way to bring about the end of the war. That was unless Duke was counting on them surrendering. Jellal knew that with Duke's arrogance, the young king could have been thinking just that.
"How many men does Duke have?" Jellal asked.
"Anywhere between twenty and thirty thousand according to the scouts," Lyon answered for him. He stood to the right of Gildarts as all the officers stared down at the paper.
"We were at ten thousand, but the numbers have dwindled since the deserters left and casualties suffered in the campaign," Gildarts answered.
"So, we're in an even shittier situation than we were at the beginning, thank you Lyon," Jellal sighed.
"We can always try a pincer move," Laxus said pressing his finger against the parchment. "We can try to lure them into this little valley right here and then flank them."
"Yeah but that's only if we can lure them there, and they would probably suspect such a tactic in our current situation," Gildarts replied. "If the pincer move fails it leaves us divided and that much more vulnerable."
"Then what should we do?" Jellal asked.
"Well what we should do is move our forces, retreat back or draw Duke's forces after us. Our army is smaller so we could theoretically move faster. This would cause Duke's forces to grow weary and quickly run out of supplies. Then, when they're tired and hungry, we launch our attack and with a swift hand we wipe them out in one fell swoop." Laxus said clenching his fist.
"That would work and be the best option, if we had full rations Gildarts. But right now we're running out. We were supposed to resupply down in Blue Pegasus before the surprise attack. Since then we've been stuck here trying to figure everything out and in that time the men have eaten into their rations significantly. We cannot go through with this plan."
"So, it looks like we have no other choice but to face them in open field combat and pray to the gods," Jellal sighed. "There is no way we can win this war in the way we are now. Perhaps it would be best to retreat back to the city and regroup. Maybe defend the borders from the Magnolian wall."
"Run and hide behind the walls, but then what?" Gildarts said. "They can starve us out, they have the numbers to potentially attack the wall, not to mention Mila's navy would also seal off the ports. Heck, they can just invade from the sea if they have to. Right now the best thing for us to do is stand on a hill, meet them in open combat, hope Duke's foolish enough to send his soldiers running up that hill and take as many of them out before we're annihilated."
"So there is no hope in winning this war?" a young officer asked.
"Not without a miracle," Gildarts grunted.
"Then what is the point of fighting?"
"Because, even if we lose, we can still give hope to the allied cities to at least defend themselves. We may lose, but we can still deal such a blow to Duke's forces that they will be incapable to taking another city. That is, if every man here is able to take out at least three men on his own," Gildarts said.
The room went silent as the men peered at the map all of them contemplating any potentially better plans. That was all except Jellal. His wondered where Natsu was and how desperately they needed him now more than ever, he and Gajeel. The two of them together were capable of taking out an entire company on their own. They were the reason for most of the Allie's victories in the war and with the two of them. They struck fear into their enemies, and Jellal knew that with both Natsu and Gajeel victory was very much a possibility. If only they were there. But there was no way for them to get back in time for the battle even if they were to return. He had hoped they would have found the other two Draconians and brought them back to help.
"Well Master Zero, it appears that everything is going far better than we could have ever planned," Ivan said as he handed Zero a glass of wine.
The two men sat on a couch covered in furs in Ivan's own private tent in the middle of Duke's own camp. The army had come to a rest for the evening and they were only a half-day's march away from the Allied forces. And they knew that victory was all but assured. Now all Duke had to do was march up, hammer down on the Allie's with the full brunt of his army and it would all be over. Ivan grinned widely to himself as he thought about it. Only a day away and all his plans will be accomplished.
"It seems that your man Jackal really came through," Ivan said taking a sip of wine.
"I told you I would come through with my end of the bargain, Ivan. Now I hope that you will live up to yours."
"Of course my friend. Tomorrow Duke will wipe out the Allies, bring an end to the war and he will be the ruler of all the kingdoms on the continent."
"Though I'm curious, how did you ever manage to convince the Draconians to abandon the Allies? I have to admit, I'm impressed," Zerp said before taking a drink from his cup.
"I told them to go and retrieve the other Draconians. That way they would be gone and give us the ample opportunity to easily defeat Magnolia and the other allied powers. Without Natsu and Gajeel, they have no hope of winning. To think, one bomb was all it took to bring out enemies to their knees. Do you think they'll surrender in the end?" Ivan asked as he swirled the wine in his cup.
"I doubt it. Too much pride," Zero replied. "Even if they did, we need to slaughter them anyways."
"Is that not a little to . . ." Ivan thought of the right word to reply with. "Is that not a little too extreme?"
"Unless you're willing to undertake the ordeal of revolutions that will inevitably take place, I suggest you eliminate any and all potential threats immediately. It might just be the wiser decision."
"Well, that's one of the many reasons I will keep Natsu alive. Not only will he serve as the most powerful weapon in my arsenal, but he will also take down any and all threats towards my reign."
"Our reign my friend," Zero hissed. "Do not forget that without me, your plans would not have been successful."
"My plans have had to change greatly over the course of the years. Natsu is and has always been the key to the success of my goals. And he and the princess falling in love only provided that much more of an ample opportunity. Despite a few miner hiccups I don't think I could have asked for the events to work out as well as they did. Granted, I needed your help eventually, but if all goes well I will soon become king and you will serve as my Hand. Then, you're free to do whatever the hell you want."
Zerp raised his glass and Ivan did as well. The clanged the two cups together before sharing a drink. They giggled happily to themselves. Ivan could barely contain his excitement.
They finished their cups as Ivan rose to pour them some more wine. Zero happily accepted the glass as he chugged down half the contents.
"I do wish that I could become king tomorrow, but having waited this long, I can wait a few days more. Hopefully, Natsu can obtain those other boys and bring them back as quickly as possible."
"Your plan only works if Natsu kills Duke though," Zero grumbled half drunkenly. "Do you think he'll do it?"
"Natsu has more than enough incentive to kill Duke," Ivan replied. "Unless Duke dies in the battle tomorrow. You wouldn't happen to have another assassin that could make that happen do you?"
"No," Zero laughed. "No, my friend unfortunately most of my assassins are already off on other missions or in Mila. I probably wouldn't do it anyways, no use in risking someone suspecting of me of treason. The boy is stupid enough; he might just get himself killed tomorrow. And then, after one battle we will have everything we ever wanted and more."
"I can certainly drink to that," Ivan chortled.
Zero finished the rest of his drink before standing up.
"It's getting late, I should probably go and get some sleep. Good night Ivan," he said before leaving.
"Good night my friend," Ivan said as he too finished the rest of his wine.