Purple River(紫川) By Lao Zhu(老猪)

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  • **Chapter 08 Part 01 – Happiness**

    <hr />
    Imperial Calendar, Year 779, December 10th, the Council of Elders erupted into applause when Central Army Commander – Stirling and Headmaster - ZiChuan Shen Xing entered the Assembly Hall. Everyone stood on their feet and welcomed their arrival. The storm of applause lasted for several minutes, then followed by waves of cheering: “Compliments for our invincible general!”

    “Long live Stirling!” Thousands of gazes were focussed on one man. Everyone came forward to shake his hand; it didn’t matter whether they knew him or not.

    The Speaker of the Council, Xiao Ping spoke: “Sir Stirling, please step up to the podium! So everyone can see you! Everyone wants to hear from you!”

    Being on the receiving end of such warm welcome made Stirling feel uneasy. He came here together with the Headmaster, but he ended up being the center of the attention, all the while Headmaster was being neglected. How would that make ZiChuan Shen Xing feel? Besides, there were two other higher ranking officers here as well, the Supreme Commander – Luo Ming Hai and the Inspector General – Di Lin. It would be rude if he addressed the council before them.

    ZiChuan Shen Xing seemed to have detected what was troubling Stirling, he smiled to him: “Go ahead. It is not just for you. You are here on behalf of the hundreds of thousands soldiers fighting on the Far Eastern Front. You are doing this for them. You should be proud.”

    Seeing all the eager faces looking his way and shouting: “Get up there! Stirling!” he gave in. Feeling slightly embarrassed, he apologized to ZiChuan Shen Xing: “Sir, pardon my manners.”

    ZiChuan Shen Xing patted his shoulder with a smile, giving him encouragement.

    Stirling walked up the podium, and thunderous applause resounded in the Assembly Hall. Stirling humbly lowered his head. When the applause started to die down a little, he gestured with his hand, hinting that he was about to speak. Instantly, the applause died away, leaving only Stirling’s clear voice echoing in the Great Hall: “I’m very grateful, for the invitation to attend the Council of Elders. Thank you all for giving me this opportunity!” (Another wave of applause)

    “Just now, I received an incredibly warm welcome from the Council. I have to thank everyone again. I’m truly honored. However, the Council is holding me at too high of esteem. I’m but a soldier. I do not deserve such honour. If there is anything I have done, it was only possible thanks to Headmaster – ZiChuan Shen Xing’s infinite wisdom, Supreme Commander – Luo Ming Hai’s strategies and the sacrifices made by the brave soldiers fighting on the frontline. While for me, I merely didn’t make any noticeable mistakes. I’m not worthy of such praise.”

    “The sky above House ZiChuan is still enveloped in a cloak of darkness. What choices do we make? War or peace? Live or die? Everything depends on the decisions you make here. You hold the future of House ZiChuan in your hands!” Therefore it is of utmost importance that we work together and make the right decision, for ZiChuan, and for the millions of people supporting us, trusting us!

    “As for me, I can only say that, the army will always remain loyal to the House! It has always been, it is now, and always will be! I promise you, we’ll be ready to carry out your next order! No matter what the Council decides in the end, whether it is war or peace, we will carry it out without fail! Our army will forever be the most loyal blade in the hands of ZiChuan. We will always be ready to defend the House in times of need and spill the blood of our enemies on the field of battle!”

    ……

    Stirling’s short speech had ended, but the applause and cheers continued for a long time.

    Stirling wanted to step down, but the applause retained him, making him feel obliged to stay and pay tribute to the crowd. He was modest, but also proud: As a soldier, could there be an even more glorious moment than this?

    While everyone cheered passionately, Luo Ming Hai watched apathetically on the side. Stirling gave him a simple nod, showing respect. Luo Ming Hai nodded back with such stiffness in his neck, it was as if he had twisted it this morning. Stirling chuckled slightly, knowing Luo Ming Hai was probably not happy about any of this. He shifted his gaze again, and found Inspector General – Di Lin.

    ……

    Di Lin smiled back at him, holding up his thumb in approval. Di Lin was truly glad for Stirling. Not only because Stirling was his good brother, but also because Stirling’s success would make Luo Ming Hai suffer. In this mind: Out of the three Generals currently in command of a large army, he already blackmailed Fang Jin to side with him. Now with the rise of Stirling, Luo Ming Hai only had Ming Hui Left on his side, not to mention Ming Hui was known for being an unreliable coward. Of course, given Stirling’s gentle nature, he would not want to actively take part in his political struggle against Luo Ming Hai, but at the very least, Stirling would remain neutral. If the situation did escalate in the future, and Stirling was forced to make a choice, Di Lin was certain that he would choose his.

    Who would have thought, that he had somehow gained the upper hand in the Army?

    An idea popped into his head: Why don’t I help Stirling take the position of Supreme Commander from Luo Ming Hai? It is not impossible. Stirling has the reputation, the accomplishments to back it up and the support of the army, the council and the people. He even has Headmaster’s favour… If he succeeds, I would have dealt a fatal blow to Luo Ming Hai.

    Something else suddenly caught his attention. He chuckled, thinking: “So Stirling has mastered the art of political speech as well! That was such an eloquent and passionate speech, yet he didn’t really say anything of importance. Was he advocating for war or for peace? He managed to avoid the question entirely, not offending either side. When did he become so masterful? Who taught him?”

    ……

    The night dawned and today’s assembly came to an end. Stirling and Di Lin hastily left the hall, feeling relieved.

    Gesturing for their escorts to leave, the duo walked casually side by side in the late autumn streets of Di Du.

    Stirling exhaled: “It’s finally over!”

    Di Lin smiled: “Yes, for now. There is more tomorrow. Patience, brother. I thought you were about to lose it back there. I could hear your knuckles cracking from miles away.”

    Stirling laughed: “Was I? I must be looking really scary then. Those elders from the province of Locke were physically shaking. But honestly, they were getting on my nerves when they started questioning me about every little detail written in Logistic Department’s ledger. I remember one asking me: ‘Look, it says here, the Logistic Department has supplied the Central Army with fifty thousand bundles of arrows in September. Where are they now?’ I told him: ‘we used them to shoot rebels.’ And he asked me with a straight face: ‘Where, when, and who did you shoot? What were their names? Where did the arrows hit them? Were there medic reports? No? You don’t have any of the evidence. How can you proof you didn’t steal them for your own gain?’”

    That was when I started shouting back: “How can I possibly ask those dead rebels for their names? What is the point of stealing fifty thousand bundles of arrows? I can’t even use them as firewood.”

    Di Lin laughed: “More patience. Haven’t you heard? There is a way to tell when a genius has been born into this world: All the idiots would band together and attack him. They don’t really have anything against you per se. It is simply what happens when you are the Champion of the war favouring faction. The peace favouring faction wants to hurt the war favouring faction by hurting you, and you are letting them win by getting angry.”

    Stirling had calmed down a little: “I get it now, but what does the council want? War or peace? I don’t care which, but they need to make up their mind quick! Several hundred thousand soldiers are waiting on their decision. The daily expense alone is costing almost a hundred million!”

    Di Lin shook his head: “As you know, the Council has always been divided into two opposing camps, the Far Eastern Faction and the Core Region Faction. Normally, the nobles from the Far Eastern Faction hold the majority, but many of them died during the recent rebellion in the Far East. Most of their territory and wealth vanished along with them, which greatly affected their hold over the council. As a result, many of the nobles from the core region have been trying to snatch the vacant positions in the council, hoping to gain the majority. Naturally, the Far Eastern Faction is fighting back, and thus we have a stalemate! The whole situation regarding war or peace is in fact a battle for control between those two factions!” What Di Lin didn’t mention was that, it was also an important battle between him and Luo Ming Hai.

    Stirling seemed to understand, asking: “Why don’t they just call for a vote? They would know the answer within an afternoon!”

    Di Lin smiled: “A political warfare is no different than a real battle. Both require tactics and strategies. Calling for a vote is like entering a battle to the death! Imagine if you are in a situation where you are facing an equally powerfully enemy, will you deploy your entire army in an all out battle?”

    Stirling shook his head: “I won’t. I will wait, until either the enemy shows its weakness or my reinforcement arrives. At the same time I will send out skirmish parties to distract my enemy, then hit him on the flank. Once I’m certain I have the absolute advantage that is the moment I will deploy the bulk of my army for a decisive battle.”

    Di Lin nodded: “It is the same here. Both factions are trying to avoid a frontal confrontation; they are both waiting for reinforcements. Meanwhile, they are trying to win over the elders who haven’t chosen a side yet, or bribe the elders from the opposing faction; just like how you would exploit an enemy’s weakness. The whole investigation into you is basically their way of attacking the flank of the war favouring faction. Once one side is convinced that it has the absolute majority that is when it will call for a vote.”

    Stirling finally understood, lamenting: “Hundreds of thousand lives, billions in military expenses, who would have thought, everything happened because of something so petty!” There was something else Stirling didn’t say: No wonder, even though we have the most powerful army on the continent, several generations of brave and wise Headmasters, and countless capable generals, towards west, we can’t defeat House Liu Feng, towards east, we can’t push back the Demons. House ZiChuan’s territory has not changed since the third Headmaster.

    He looked towards Di Lin: “Brother, I have another question for you, but I’m not sure…” He hesitated.

    Di Lin halted his steps, turning around towards him. The duo looked each other in the eyes; Di Lin’s gaze was so crystal clear: “You want to ask me why I advocate for war? Am I like those elders? Do I also have some ulterior motive?”

    Stirling admitted honestly: “Yes.” Then protested: “But, I didn’t say anything about having an ulterior motive, you said that yourself!”

    Di Lin laughed: “You can’t even be honest with your own brother. That makes me sad.”

    His tone turned serious again: “The reason I’m advocating for war is because the rebels are not being sincere. They say they wanted peace, and everything was forgiven, but they wouldn’t give us a straight answer regarding any of the important questions. For example, we demanded that they hand over the traitor Lei Hong, but they kept telling us they don’t know where he is; we told them to stop harassing our supply line, they said it wasn’t their problem, and the allied army of all races was not responsible for the wrongdoings of the bandits, which was clearly a lie, since most of the bandits were part of the Rebel Army before they became bandits.”

    “When we asked them: 'since our army are holding their current position, shouldn’t the Rebel Army show their good faith and remain where they are as well?' They gave us the excuse that their soldiers needed to return home to help with the harvest… I’m quite certain once they disband the army and send them home to every villages in the Far East, while we are still waiting here like idiots, they will already be busy recruiting and mobilizing more manpower to fight us again next year.”

    “They were also saying that they wanted to create a peaceful paradise in the Far East for both the Humans and the non-Humans, but no one knew how. Who will be in charge? Will they recognize House ZiChuan’s authority? Do they still belong to House ZiChuan? They won’t give us answer to any of those questions, and therefore I don’t think they are being sincere at all.”

    “In other words, the rebel’s goal for the peace talk is very obvious: They know the winter is coming, all the rivers in the Far Eastern Regions will most likely be frozen; digging trenches will be much harder. Their army is useless once they come out into the open. No matter how many men they may have, they are no match for our lancers. Their goal is to buy time, waiting for the spring to come, when the rain will soften the earth. By then our heavy cavalries will no longer reign supreme. Our hooves will get stuck in the mud like lambs waiting to be slaughtered.”

    “Against a group of aggressive races like theirs, where anyone could become a soldier at a moment’s notice, killing several hundred thousand wouldn’t even tickle them. As long as they are willing, they can easily come up with several millions more. After the peace talk, we will only grow weaker. When they come at us again next year with an even larger army, and besiege Fort Warren. How are we going to stop them then?”

    The words sent chill down Stirling’s spine, he asked: “So that is the first reason, what is the second?”

    Di Lin continued arrogantly: “Committing treason is the worst crime of all. They cannot be forgiven! Yes, the Far Eastern Nobles may have been too cruel; they may also have been too greedy, but we must let everyone know: no matter the reason or cause, rebelling against House ZiChuan means only one thing – death! If we spare the Far Eastern Rebels today, tomorrow we will be facing the second, the third and the hundredth Far Eastern Rebellion, and soon House ZiChuan is going to crumble like the Empire of Light did, hundreds of years ago!”

    Stirling shook his head: “The Far Eastern population is in the tens of millions, killing them all is impossible.”

    “It is impossible. In the end we’ll have to spare some of them, but that must come after we have obtained the victory. As the victor, we can be merciful. We can show them the benevolence and kindness of House ZiChuan, and that will not tarnish the House’s honour. However, if we rush to negotiate peace given our current situation, we can forget any of that. We will only be seen as laughing stocks. The whole world will know how weak we are. We are only going to bring an even bigger disaster upon ourselves!”

    “Stirling, you have the power. The elders respect you. Your words hold weight. When the time comes, you have to side with me. This is for the future of House ZiChuan! Luo Ming Hai’s appeasement policies won’t work.”

    Stirling had already decided to remain neutral, but after hearing Di Lin’s earnest plea, and well-thought-out reasoning, he wasn’t sure anymore. He pondered for a while, finally saying: “Ok. If I have no choice but to choose a side, I will side with you.”

    His promise wasn’t much of a promise, but it was good enough for Di Lin. He knew Stirling’s character. Once he made a promise, he would never break it, and that was simply the best he could do for the time being, which worked out in Di Lin’s favour.

    While the conversation continued, they had arrived at a crossroad.

    Feeling relaxed, Di Lin halted his steps and asked: “How about it? Want to pay your sister-in-law a visit? She kept asking me about you and Xiu, how have you guys been in the Far East? So, are you hungry? Do you want to try her cooking?”

    If it was any other day, Stirling would have jumped on the opportunity, but today he kindly declined: “Another time perhaps. I’ve an appointment.”

    Even Di Lin was surprised when Stirling declined his invitation. He looked him up and down, then burst out in laughter: “I see. When the moon mounted to the tops of the willows, two lovers kept their tryst after the yellow dusk.[[1]] I was wondering, what is with that smile on your face the whole time. I get it now: The spring is in the air, and the absence makes the heart grow fonder. I must be getting in the way!”

    Stirling’s cheeks flushed red, still trying to deny: “What are you talking about. It is nothing like that.”

    “Fine, I won’t pry, but…” Di Lin came closer with a very serious look on his face: “As an older brother, it is my responsibility to warn you.”

    “Oh? What?”

    “Be careful with the manual labor; don’t overexert yourself, or it could become problematic if you are too tired to mount the horse when you are ordered to return to the Far East!” Di Lin spoke every word with a frown, as if he was really worried.

    It took a while before Stirling realized what he meant. By the time he went after him with his fist, Di Lin was long gone, leaving behind only one short sentence: “When you have time, come around to my place with Li Qing and have a dinner with your sister-in-law. We are families; there is nothing to be embarrassed about.”

    Watching Di Lin’s shadows slowly disappearing in the distance, a dark cloud of worries floated above him: “Li Qing! Right, I almost forgot. I still have a virtuous fiancé at home. What should I do?!”

    ……

    Soon, Stirling arrived at the promised pavilion in the park. After seeing Ka Dan’s elegant shadow, all his worries and unhappiness instantly vanished. In order to avoid any unwanted attention, Ka Dan had donned her scarf and veil. In the early winter, her appearance did not seem too out of place. Stirling approached her from behind, wrapping his arms around her tightly.

    Ka Dan jumped from the sudden touch. Seeing it was Stirling, she put her hand in front of his chest, saying: “You really scared me.” Her scare was quickly replaced by a smile, a smile that made his heart skip a beat. Just as he was about to kiss her beautiful lips…

    “Warning, the following content contains scenes of a sexual nature, parental guidance is advised for viewers under the age of eighteen.”

    ZiChuan Ning's voice rang out from behind. She sat on the wooden railing of the pavilion, swinging her feet lazily with her neck extended, watching the couple get intimate. She called out in an indolent voice, "Please do continue, pretend I'm not here." Stirling was too focused on Ka Dan; somehow, he didn't notice her there at all.

    Stirling was greatly disappointed. He let go of Ka Dan and looked at her questioningly: Why did you bring that rascal?

    Ka Dan’s cheeks flushed in embarrassment, whispering: “I didn’t know the way.”

    Stirling sighed in defeat. The only reason he and Ka Dan agreed to meet outside was to avoid having ZiChuan Ning around. Her annoying nature came directly from ZiChuan Xiu. In the end, he still couldn’t get rid of her.

    “I’m sorry. I was late. Do you have to wait for long?” Stirling held Ka Dan’s cold hands close to heart, asking with concern.

    Ka Dan shook her head slightly: “Not long.”

    “Liar!” ZiChuan Ning interrupted angrily: “He was late for over an hour! I counted, on average I’m getting bitten by a mosquito every ten minute. Look, one, two… there are eight of them in total!”

    Stirling didn’t bother to look, and continued to ask: “Are you hungry?”

    Ka Dan shook her head again: “I’m not.”

    “I am!” ZiChuan Ning hurriedly added, but they both ignored her.

    Stirling asked: “Are you thirsty?”

    Ka Dan shook her head out of habit, then finally nodded: “Just a little.”

    Naturally, ZiChuan Ning wouldn’t wish to be left out: “I’m thirsty as well.”

    Stirling faked a smile worthy of an elder from the Council: “How about it, Lady Ning. Are you thirsty? Here, take my money and go get yourself something nice!”

    Stirling grabbed a bill worth thousand and said: “Here, keep the change!”

    ZiChuan Ning: “But the drink I want is very expensive!”

    Stirling added another thousand: “Fine, here. Don’t worry about it!”

    ZiChuan Ning: “I heard it is made of something very special!”

    Stirling added another thousand.

    ZiChuan Ning: “What about the money for the tissues?!”

    Stirling reached for his wallet again.

    “How am I supposed to go home on my own?”

    Stirling wanted to pay, but his wallet was already empty. He sighed: “Ning, what do you want? There is a limit to how much you can extort, ok?”

    ZiChuan Ning showed her sweet and loving smile: “Don’t be like that! I just don’t want to see you make the mistake that is all. You know how the young couples are like. Remember, don’t pluck the forbidden fruit before it is ripe!”

    Stirling muttered softly: “But I already did, so what else do you want?”

    Ka Dan’s cheeks turned purple as she kicked him hard from under the table.

    ZiChuan Ning uttered in surprise: “What?!”

    Stirling instantly corrected: “I mean, of course not. You have nothing to worry about!”

    Seeing he couldn’t get rid of the rascal through conventional means, Stirling showed his trump card: “Right, someone wanted me to deliver a message to you from the Far East. Hold on, don’t get too excited yet. So what did he say again? It sounded important. Damn, my memories have been failing lately. I can’t seem to recall. How unfortunate, but fear not, if I could just get some alone time I’m sure I will start to remember again.”

    ……

    Ka Dan laughed until she could barely stand straight: “That was so mean. How did you come up with something like that?! The moment you mentioned Sir ZiChuan Xiu, she instantly melted! But, did Sir Xiu really tell you to deliver the message?”

    Stirling reminisced the day he spoke to ZiChuan Xiu in the Far East, and he did ask him whether he had anything he wanted to tell Lady Ning. ZiChuan Xiu was silent for a long time before he answered: “If she asks about it, tell her that you never saw me.”

    What happened between those two, he wondered. Stirling shook his head: “Nope. I haven’t seen him at all, but don’t tell Lady Ning that. Or this trick won’t work again. So, did something happen between those two?”

    Ka Dan gave him a look, her expression unreadable. Stirling asked curiously: “Did I say something wrong?”

    “Stirling, you just lied! If you haven’t seen Sir Xiu, then you wouldn’t have noticed the strangeness between them, and you wouldn’t have asked that question. Is it possible that you have seen him and he told you to not tell anyone that you did?”

    Stirling was shocked. He never expected that Ka Dan would uncover his lies from a single small slip-up, and figure out the truth all by herself. Out of all the people he had met, in term of reaction speed and critical thinking, Di Lin had always been the number one. But now, perhaps even he was no match to the Demon Princess – Ka Dan!

    A thought came to him: Luckily we have captured her. If she is still with the Demons and is entrusted with important tasks, she could very easily turn out to be another powerful enemy like Liu Feng Shuang! If all the Demon Commanders are as clever as she is, then the Far Eastern Army will be in serious trouble. No matter what, we can’t return her to the Demons.

    He suddenly realized how ridiculous his thoughts sounded: Ka Dan loves him; she would never be his enemy.

    Seeing the unsteady look on Stirling’s face, she hastily added: “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have accused you. Are you angry with me?”

    Stirling exhaled deeply, purging all the unnecessary thoughts from his mind. He smiled: “No. I didn’t tell you the truth. I was wrong.” He told her the whole story, but reminded her: “Don’t say anything to Lady Ning!”

    “Anyhow, can we stop talking about them? Let’s talk about us. Ka Dan, you have been living with us for so long, are you getting used to living here? How are you feeling?”

    Ka Dan hesitated: “I’m not sure how to say it. When I first got here, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Everything is so wonderful! The weather is neither too cold nor too warm. There is an abundance of resources, providing so much comfort in life.”

    Stirling asked out of curiosity: “Really? What is it like being over there?” He immediate regretted asking once the words escaped his lips.

    As expected, Ka Dan only shook her head, not saying a word. Stirling, you wouldn’t understand. Compared to us, Humans practically live in paradise. The nature is a cruel mistress. Our lands are barren; there are deserts everywhere. Our weather is harsh, the morning is unbearably hot and the evening is insufferably cold. Natural disasters are common occurrence for us. Earthquake, typhoon, snowstorm, sandstorm, and even the hail can destroy a year of harvest we worked so hard to protect, striking the realm with famine. Stirling, even if I told you, you still wouldn’t understand. Death for us is as common as the air we breathe, the sky and the earth we see. It is always, and everywhere. My land is a place of sorrow. Death is a part of our daily life. Stirling, if you only know what it is like, then you will understand why we keep invading the Westland time and time again. We are not doing this because war is in our nature; we are only doing this because the only way for our people to survive is to take the food and rich soils from the Humans! Humans are so fortunate! Why do they not need to bleed, or die to have such gentle weather, clear sky and flowers in full bloom? And I, soon to be living as a Human, will get to share all of these with my beloved. Why can’t I forget the darkness in the sky, the endless desert and my father? My heart aches! My home…

    Ka Dan’s eyes were brimming with tears. Stirling could feel her pain as he tried to comfort her: “Don’t worry. Once we pacify the Far East, I will take you home to see your family.”

    “But then, I won’t be able to see you again. I will be even sadder.”

    Stirling smiled: “How so? Didn’t we promise to never leave each other? I will go with you.”

    Ka Dan stared eyes wide: “Impossible. My Father and Brothers will kill you! They are always saying the Highborn and the Humans cannot coexist!”

    That had him startled: He almost forgot the father of his beloved was the current invincible Demon God King!

    Ka Dan comforted him back: “Besides, it has been so long since I was captured. My families probably think I’m already dead. Let’s keep it that way. They will be sad, but the sadness will eventually pass. I have also gotten used to the life here.”

    Stirling was deeply touched. The girl standing in front him was willing to give up her majestic stature as the princess, give up her families and her home in order to be with him. Where else would he find a truer love than that? In his gentle voice, he told her: “Don’t worry. This life, I’m yours. I vow to always love you and honor you for all the days of my life! If I break my vow, let me die with a thousand arrows through my heart!”

    Ka Dan hurriedly put her finger against his lips, not letting him speak. Their eyes were filled with joy, and their hands intertwined, sharing each other’s warmth. However, Ka Dan’s face revealed a hint of worry. Stirling immediately asked: “Is something wrong? Aren’t you happy?”

    “No. I just thought, I’m a Demon princess, while you are a high ranking officer of House ZiChuan. If you marry me, it may affect your future…”

    Stirling smiled: “I don’t think that is going to be a problem. The Headmaster has always been kind to me. I’m certain he will allow it if I asked him.”

    “What if he doesn’t?”

    “Then I will resign.” Stirling replied without hesitation; his voice was unequivocally clear.

    “It is not much, but after all these years, I have managed to save up a small amount, enough for us to open a bakery somewhere. And I will be the Master Baker… I guess I haven’t told you. I’m quite a baker! And you can be the Madam, handling the customers. Since you are so beautiful, I’m sure we will have many customers…” Stirling looked at her as he spoke with a shade of regret in his voice: “Just that, you deserve better.”

    Ka Dan kissed him softly, whispering with flushed cheeks: “What are you saying? I’m not pretty at all, and I’m very clumsy, I hope I don’t scare the customers away.”

    “A peaceful life without violence, intrigue and worries, would you like that?”

    Ka Dan put up a serious look: “Let me think about it… Hmm, what if we start hiring pretty waitresses later? Will you flirt with them? Master Baker Stirling?”

    Holding up his chin, Stirling pretended to give the matter a serious thought: “Let me think about it too… How pretty are we talking about? Madam Baker Ka Dan?”

    “You are done for! You better not let me catch you!”

    “Hahaha…”

    The loving couple immersed themselves into the sweetness of each other. They never noticed the pair of gloomy eyes watching them from behind the bushes in the distance.

    ……

    While reading the scout's report, Luo Ming Hai slammed on his desk, instructing: "I don't care what you do or how much it cost, I want to know everything there is to know about that girl!"

    The next day, a report containing Ka Dan's birth, background and her involvement with Stirling was delivered to Luo Ming Hai's desk. Luo Ming Hai asked coldly: "Is the information accurate?"

    "Yes, Sir. We bribed one of ZiChuan Ning's servants. It cost us two-hundred-thousand, but I'm confident he won't lie to us."

    Another ominous smile appeared on Luo Ming Hai's face: "This is worth every penny! I'm going to see the Headmaster now."

    ……

    After the usual daily work report, Luo Ming Hai casually mentioned the news to ZiChuan Shen Xing: "Sir, last night when I was taking my habitual stroll through the garden. I happened to run into Commander Stirling and his female companion. They were quite fond of each other!"

    ZiChuan Shen Xing smiled: "How long has it been since Stirling last saw Li Qing? I suppose it is about time they get together! Hoho, it is good being young. He makes an old man like me jealous sometimes!"

    "But," Luo Ming Hai added: "I don't think it was Banner Master Li Qing!"

    "Oh?" ZiChuan Shen Xing seemed more interested: "Who was it?"

    "I'm not sure, Sir. Would you like me to find out?"

    ZiChuan Shen Xing pondered for a while, then spoke slowly: "Very well, it doesn't hurt to know." Even though he sounded uninterested, they both knew, he did not take the decision lightly.

    ……

    In less than two hours, Luo Ming Hai had "finished" his investigation. ZiChuan Shen Xing listened to his report in silence, then responded calmly: "I see. I don't suppose it is a big deal, but it is best if we keep this to ourselves. Was there anything else?"

    Luo Ming Hai looked disappointed. He didn't expect ZiChuan Shen Xing to be so unconcerned about such important finding. He never realized that the moment he had left, ZiChuan Shen Xing immediately instructed his servant: "Tell Banner Master Li Qing to come and see me at once."

    After an hour of conversation with Li Qing, ZiChuan Shen Xing's visage was cold as ice, but his voice was still so gentle and kind: "Why don't you ask if Commander Stirling has time tonight, if he is willing to dine with an old man like me?"

    <hr />
    [[1]]Part of the poem by Ou Yang Xiu, “The Lantern Festival”.
  • edited April 2016
    **Chapter 08 Part 02 - Showdown**

    <hr />
    Stirling arrived on time for the dinner at Headmaster’s House. ZiChuan Shen Xing gave him a warm welcome as he accompanied him into the dining room. Everything was as ZiChuan Shen Xing told him, an ordinary meal. Other than himself, he didn’t invite anyone else tonight, but the dinner was too extravagant for just the two of them. That got Stirling thinking, such sumptuous behaviour was quite uncharacteristic of him. As an officer of the Logistic Department, Li Qing once told Stirling half jokingly: “Our Headmaster is the most modest of all Headmasters in House ZiChuan’s history.” Hinting that sometimes, ZiChuan Shen Xing could be overly stingy. He would spend thirty million to arm an army without a second thought, yet, he was unwilling to pay a few extra coins to add a fish to his evening meal.

    “Sir, this is too much. You didn’t have to. The two of us won’t be able to eat all these.”

    ZiChuan Shen Xing didn’t seem to care: “Don’t worry about that. I will finish the leftovers tomorrow.” He laughed: “Come, you are guest tonight; you don’t have to hold back. Be at ease, and eat all you can! The days in the Far East must have been tough on you. Have you looked in the mirrors lately? It has only been a few months but your face has darkened and aged so much.”

    “It’s an honour to serve House ZiChuan! It is my duty as a soldier; I have only done what is required of me…”

    “Didn’t I tell you to be at ease? That is the only flaw of your character, you just can’t let go. Tonight you are not allowed to call me Sir. Treat me as an elder instead and call me Uncle Shen Xing. How is that?”

    Stirling had been feeling uneasy since he got here, but after seeing the kind look on ZiChuan Shen Xing’s face, it was like a weight off his shoulder. He finally smiled: “Very well.”

    The duo sat down at the table, and ZiChuan Shen Xing began introducing the various dishes he had prepared for tonight: “This is the Patterned Carp Fish from the western regions. They can only be caught during the few selected weeks in the year, and it is even harder to transport them to Di Du while keeping them alive…”

    ……

    After the dinner, the two sat down in the Guest Room and enjoyed the tea, during which ZiChuan Shen Xing asked with concern about the ongoing war in the Far East. He was mostly interested in knowing the morale and the combat strength of the newly recruited militia forces, since they amounted to over half of all the forces currently active in the Far East.

    Stirling considered for a moment then told him the truth: “Majority of the militia forces are farmers and local aristocrats from all parts of House ZiChuan. Even though they didn’t receive much training, they are brave and they are eager. With proper encouragement, they can fight on par with any regular divisions. However, when they are under attack or when they start losing, they panic very easily.”

    “A while back, a small militia force was sent to pacify a group of rebels. All it took was a few dozen Beastmen, and several thousand militias were sent fleeing in all directions. Another time late in the night inside Fang Jin’s main camp, a young soldier was having a nightmare when he shouted in his sleep: ‘Demons!’ And instantly, chaos ensued in the camp. One voice soon turned into many, shouting: ‘The Demons are here! Run for your lives!’ Everyone started to panic and run around like headless chickens in the dark, shouting “Run! Run!” Fang Jin did his best to calm everyone down, lighting torches while giving orders: ‘Stay calm! Everyone regroup at my position!’ But even his words could not stem the tide. If it wasn’t for his brave personal guards, he was probably trampled to death by now. By the time the sun came up, several hundred soldiers had been trampled to death during the chaos. It took Fang Jin a whole week to re-gather the scattered forces. Even then a few thousand of them had gone missing. They either turned deserters or were picked off by Rebels when they were separated.”

    “Currently, we have four active armies operating in the Far East. My Central Army, around hundred-thousand strong; Ming Hui’s Black Banner Army, also around hundred-thousand strong; Fang Jin’s militia forces, around two-hundred-fifty-thousand strong; finally, there is the remnant of the Far Eastern Army. After regrouping, they total about two-hundred-thousand. However they are mostly spread across the region, including Fort Warren’s, Deja’s and Iriya’s garrison forces.”

    “All the active Commanders agree that, despite the numbers of Fang Jin’s forces, in term of actual combat strength, Fang Jin’s forces are the weakest because he doesn’t have a single regular division under his command. If the Rebels wish to break through our lines, they'll definitely start with Fang Jin. Both I and Ming Hui wish to place one or two regular divisions under Fang Jin’s command, to strengthen his forces.”

    ZiChuan Shen Xing listened to his every word while nodding constantly: “Indeed! Soldiers must be trained! I have already arranged for fifty thousand militia forces to be formally trained at Fort Warren!”

    Stirling nodded in agreement: “That is most wise.”

    ZiChuan Shen Xing quickly changed the subject: "Right, Stirling. You are not that young anymore. Have you thought about settling down?"

    Stirling was shocked, answering in a hurry: "Thank you, Sir. But our lands are broken, the Far East is in turmoil, the Rebellion runs rampant and hundreds of thousand enemies have lined up against us. I am fortunate enough to be graced by Headmaster's and House ZiChuan's favour. How could I not give my all when the House is in great strife? This is neither the place nor time to consider my personal affairs."

    "That is where you are wrong, Stirling." ZiChuan Shen Xing spoke very seriously: "Quelling the rebellion, defending the realm against our enemies, those are the duties of every soldier in House ZiChuan. You cannot and should not assume all the responsibility alone! Are you saying without you, we will not be able to pacify the Far East?"

    Stirling panicked, hurriedly curtsying: "Yes, Sir. I misspoke. I apologize."

    ZiChuan Shen Xing gestured for him to sit, saying: "As I said, you don't have to feel responsible for everything. It is a burden that we all share! Yes, from your point of view, it is your duty to serve House ZiChuan, but as House ZiChuan, how can we let a loyal servant suffer so much in its name and ask him to sacrifise all his youth? You are telling me that it has to wait until the rebellion is quelled, but what if the negotiation fails? This war can easily go on for years. Are you really going to wait for another ten years to get married? That would be ridiculous."

    Stirling argued: "But I still have many urgent businesses to attend do; my men need me in the Far East..."

    "Oh, it is fine. We are still negotiating anyway. There is nothing you can do for the time being. Why don't you stay in the Capital for a few more days, get married and then go back? Of course, we may have to rush things along, but you can leave the details to me. I'll take care of everything. I promise you a wedding worthy of you!"

    The Headmaster promised to arrange his wedding, which was such a rare honor. If it was any other day, Stirling would have kneeled and bowed in gratitude, but right now, his mind was a complete mess. Stirling was at a loss for words; he was stunned.

    ZiChuan Shen Xing didn't seem to care for his lack of curtsy, he continued: "It's not right to keep her waiting without ever giving her an answer. Li Qing is still a lady. Do you really want her to spend her entire youth waiting around for you?"

    "Stirling, war is important, but so is guaranteeing our future. Both you and Li Qing are very capable in your own right, and very loyal to ZiChuan. I'm certain that your children will be as capable and loyal as you are!"

    "Good, Stirling. Since you don't have anything to add, then it is settled. Very well, I already picked the date. Two days from now is a good day. You may have a week off for honeymoon, before you have to return to the Far East.”

    "How much savings do you have? Do you have enough for the wedding? If not, I can help with the cost. Li Qing comes from a famous Household. We can't insult her with too poor of a wedding."

    Stirling's mind screamed in agony, but one thing had always been clear to him: Whatever happens, he must not agree to anything half-heartedly. He spoke with a strained voice: "Sir, I hope to delay the wedding."

    ZiChuan Shen Xing's face instantly darkened. That was the first time Stirling had ever disobeyed his wishes: "Stirling, what are you saying? Do you think you are too good for her, and she is not worthy of you anymore?"

    With the first set of words out of his mouth, Stirling had gotten much bolder: "I wouldn't dare. Lady Li Qing is noble born; she is beautiful, virtuous, kind and very capable..."

    ZiChuan Shen Xing nodded: "Indeed, so what more do you want?"

    "No. I just thought, given Lady Li Qing's beauty and skills, she deserves a better man than I. I am but a soldier, a lowborn. I have no wealth or properties to speak of. I do not deserve someone like her."

    ZiChuan Shen Xing leapt to his feet, asking in a drawn out manner: "Stirling, do you intend to break off the engagement?" He lowered his voice, as if he was trying to suppress his anger.

    Stirling gritted his teeth, answering softly: "Yes."

    The moment those words left his mouth, he could feel the wave of dizziness washing over him. He steeled his mind, closed his eyes, and fortified himself against the impending rage of heaven.

    To his surprise, only peace and calm came for him. ZiChuan Shen Xing's voice was unbelievably gentle: "Stirling, if you don't like Li Qing, is it possible that you have someone else in mind? You can tell me, I won't blame you."

    "Sir?" Stirling was at a loss for words.

    "It doesn't matter who she is. You can tell me."

    "You are right, Sir. My heart belongs to someone else." Seeing the kind look on ZiChuan Shen Xing's face, Stirling gathered his courage and told him: "The one I love is Ka Dan."

    ZiChuan Shen Xing raised his brow: "Ka Dan? Who is she?" Even though he knew everything there is to know about her, he had to pretend hearing her name for the first time.

    Stirling mustered up the rest of his courage and told him everything. ZiChuan Shen Xing listened attentively as he paced back and forth inside the room, not saying a word. He finally stopped in front of the window, speaking slowly: "I'm getting old."

    Stirling didn't quite understand, responding instinctively: "Sir, you are not even sixty. You are still young and energetic. How can you be 'old'?"

    ZiChuan Shen Xing ignored him as he went on: "In a sense, after all these years and being the Headmaster, I have seen it all and done it all. I shouldn't have any regrets, but there is just one thing I can't seem to let go."

    Stirling watched him in silence. Tonight, the cunning and calculated Headmaster had laid down his mask, showing a rare sight of honesty.

    "Since our founding father, the First Headmaster - ZiChuan Yun founded House ZiChuan, until my brother, who died from battle after he handed me the mantle from his deathbed, House ZiChuan's bloodline had weathered seven generations of storms of time! I cannot allow the name of 'ZiChuan' to perish under my watch! If what we built with seven generations of blood and tears ended up collapsing in my hand, I will not be able to face my brother or House ZiChuan's ancestor in the afterlife!"

    "All I have done and all I have given up, everything was to ensure the future of House ZiChuan. Every sin I have committed, I will gladly face them on my own. Even if I have to suffer in the deepest halls of hell, I will have no regrets!" ZiChuan Shen Xing declared with exceptional determination, even so he could not mask the strand of regret in his voice.

    Stirling had some ideas of what ZiChuan Shen Xing meant with the “sins” he had committed, yet, he felt the need to comfort him: “You are being too hard on yourself, Sir. The Far Eastern rebellion is definitely a serious matter, but it will not affect the longevity of ZiChuan, it will not threaten our survival.”

    “I was not talking about the Far East.” ZiChuan Shen Xing’s eyed him sharply while gently tapping the tea table with his fingertip: “I can predict, in the ten years after my death, House ZiChuan will be consumed by a succession war. ZiChuan Ning is too young, and knows too little. She is also a girl, with no prestige to speak of. How can she hope to repel the overwhelming opposition and keep her subjects at bay? Seeing the lack of faith in the young ruler of the House, troubling intentions will no doubt rise in the heart of the ambitious ones. With the Imperial grip loosened, soon even the local lords and vassals would attempt to remove her from power. Just like how House ZiChuan was founded after the collapse of Empire of Light, who knows, perhaps there will be a second and a third House ZiChuan, breaking away from us and declaring independence. Think about it, by then ZiChuan Ning will have no army to call upon, no lords to rely on. As a fragile little girl, what can she do when she is surrounded by countless enemies from outside and within?”

    Stirling could sense the fear in his every word. He hurriedly reassured him: “Sir, I think you are worrying too much. Yes, there may be a few with malicious intent, but I believe the vast majority of the lords and officers are still loyal to the House. I’m sure you will live a long life, but if the day does come when the heaven falls, I have no doubt that the servants of ZiChuan will love Lady Ning the same way they have always loved you, and give her their loyalty and undying respect.”

    ZiChuan Shen Xing shook his head: “Stirling, you are only seeing the good in others! While I’m alive, of course they are all very loyal, but once I’m dead. Haha! I still remember, while my brother was alive, the traitor Yang Ming Hui was also a loyal servant of the House!”

    ZiChuan Shen Xing’s words were spoken with wisdom. Stirling had no answers. He asked: “Then what do you intend to do, Sir?”

    “In the end, ZiChuan Ning is still a girl. She needs a strong man at her side as regent and protector. He needs to be her blade. He will send fear into anyone who dares to oppose her, keeping them in check. Only then can she survive the first ten years, the most dangerous time of her short reign! That man needs to brave and competent. He also needs to be beyond loyal, or it will only prove to be counterproductive. So Stirling, who do you believe is capable of such feat?”

    Stirling considered for a moment then said: “This is a serious matter concerning the future of House ZiChuan. It’s not my place to judge, but since the Headmaster asked, I can only say what is in my heart. Given the current situation, Supreme Commander Luo Ming Hai is certainly the most loyal to you and to the House. He is also a very skilled politician and civil servant. In addition, he has the support of the people. I believe he is most suitable.”

    ZiChuan Shen Xing smiled: “I’m sure he is very loyal, but he has a fatal weakness. He has no understanding for war. He doesn’t have the support of the army. He may seem like a good choice for now, but that is because he has my backing. Once I’m gone, he will not be able to handle things on his own.”

    ZiChuan Shen Xing thought to himself: First of all, he is no match to Di Lin! Sigh, Luo Ming Hai, you still can’t let go of your family’s death. You have let vengeance blind your eyes and dull your mind. That is not the bearing of a skilled politician! If I were you, I would feel sad, I would mourn their deaths, I would pretend as it was a natural disaster like tsunami or earthquake that took their lives. Even in times of war, accidental deaths are common. Why can’t you face it with the calmness of your heart? Why do you have to make Di Lin your arch nemesis? As long as necessary, a skilled politician can work together with the killer of his parents without a moment of hesitation. How do you not know something so simple? Do you not understand that in order to accomplish anything at all as the Supreme Commander, you will need Inspector General’s support? Even Yang Ming Hua only dared to declare his intent for betrayal after he had obtained Inspector General - Xiao Long’s support. If the two of you joined hands, you can easily do whatever you wanted unimpeded by all, not even me… Then again, if it wasn’t for your grudge, I probably wouldn’t have put you as the Supreme Commander and Di Lin as the Inspector General in the first place…

    ……

    Stirling pondered a bit then suggested: “Sir, what about Inspector General – Di Lin? He is able, tough and a good general. He is also decisive…”

    Before Stirling could finish, ZiChuan Shen Xing interrupted him with a wave of the hand: “I know how capable Di Lin is, but the man enjoys killing and has too many enemies. He cannot inspire loyalty in others. I won’t consider him.”

    ……

    ZiChuan Shen Xing wanted to say more, but didn’t: Stirling, have you never paid attention to Di Lin’s eyes? His ambition burns so brightly inside! I have never seen a man wanting power as badly as he does! How can I put the life of my niece, the lives of my family in the hands of such ambitious and cold-hearted monster? The only reason I kept him alive is because I still need him to keep Luo Ming Hai in check. I definitely have to kill him before my time comes! Or he will become the greatest threat House ZiChuan has ever faced, hundred times more dangerous than Yang Ming Hua!

    But who should I send? I’m sure Luo Ming Hai will be more than willing, which will make Stirling and ZiChuan Xiu his enemies. They will no doubt want to avenge their big brother, resulting in an irreconcilable difference between them and Luo Ming Hai. That will be the best outcome. It is the only way for my niece to remain firmly on the throne, and the only way to ensure the future of House ZiChuan.

    We have survived the past two hundred years of upheaval, what is two hundred years more…

    ……

    Stirling mentioned Ming Hui’s name afterwards, but ZiChuan Shen Xing only laughed: “How can I possibly put the fate of the House in the hand of a coward?”

    Even Stirling laughed. He thought about it then said: “There is another, who is very loyal to Lady Ning. He is brave, smart, capable and competent in war. If he was given the power of regency, I cannot think of anyone more suitable than him.”

    “Oh? Who would that be?”

    “ZiChuan Xiu. Not only do he and Lady Ning love each other, once they are married, ZiChuan Xiu can naturally assume the position of the regent by being the husband of the Headmaster, and take control of the High Command. Since they are husband and wife, there is no reason for them to betray each other. Their child will also systematically become the next generation Headmaster, enabling a smooth transition of power and ensuring the continuation of House ZiChuan’s bloodline at the same time. Furthermore, if ZiChuan Xiu is put in power, he will have both mine and Di Lin’s full support. The High Command and the Ministry will no longer be at each other’s throat like it is now. The House will be united. We can finally turn our attention outward, making House ZiChuan's dominion over the world no longer a distant dream! Sir, do you not agree?”

    Everyone else Stirling had suggested, ZiChuan Shen Xing merely scoffed at, but this time, he was truly tempted, especially the part that ensured the continuation of House ZiChuan’s bloodline and the chance to conquer the world. How could he not? To become the sole ruler of the whole world, that was the dream of the past seven generations.

    But he quickly calmed himself down. ZiChuan Xiu is too cunning and too hard to predict! Everyone has an objective: Di Lin’s objective is power; Luo Ming Hai’s objective is Di Lin’s head; Stirling’s objective is being loyal to the House, and princess Ka Dan… Anyone, as long as they have an objective in mind, their intentions and actions will be easy to predict, but even now, I still can’t figure out what ZiChuan Xiu is after. He would give up the chance to work in the High Command in exchange for the Rebels’ lives; He is not interested in woman either. Even though he and ZiChuan Ning are fairly close, he has always kept her at an arm’s length… So what does he really want?”

    Di Lin is dangerous, but Di Lin is also predictable. However I cannot see through ZiChuan Xiu. If you say he is a coward, he did attack into Liu Feng Xi Shan’s base camp with only eight hundred cavalries at his side. He even assassinated a Demon General in the midst of an Army all by himself. He also took part in the assassination of House ZiChuan’s number one fighter in the middle of Central Army’s encampment. Not to mention he went to persuade the rebellious Central Army Officers at the risk of being cut to pieces!

    Yet, I can’t really call him brave either. After I and Yang Ming Hua exiled him to the Far East for six years even though he just saved the Capital, he didn’t complain even once after he came back. I even purposely tried to provoke him by placing him in the Army Reserve, and just like before, not a word of complaint. Such patience and shrewdness are short of terrifying! Someone like him is capable of just about anything. Today he can be loyal to you; tomorrow he can sell the entire House ZiChuan to House Liu Feng.

    ……

    ZiChuan Shen Xing stopped his train of thought, sounding more pleasant: “Xiu is a decent choice, but he is too young. He won’t be able to inspire confidence in others. I believe there is an even better candidate than him.”

    Failing to defend his friend, Stirling was slightly disappointed. He had to force himself to pay attention: “I’m all ears, Sir.”

    “Well, I believe that you are a pretty good choice!”

    Blood instantly rushed to his head, Stirling could barely stand straight as he got up from the chair: “Sir, no… Such important task; I’m not worthy.”

    “Stirling, sit down and listen to me.” ZiChuan Shen Xing sounded even gentler than before: “I trust your character and loyalty. You have distinguished yourself in the line of duty; you have fought in the war. The army will definitely support you! Everyone knows your reputation, you are honest and just. The people loves you, even those cynical old men from the Council of Elders have nothing but praises for you! What is more, you are a brother to Di Lin and ZiChuan Xiu. If you are in power, they will support you no questions asked! Do you see? You are the only one who meets all the requirements!”

    Stirling’s head rang like an anvil. He might be righteous, but he was not immune to the temptation of desires. Seeing the path to a bright and dazzling future set before him, unconsciously, his breathing hastened, his heart raced, and he was overcome by dizziness.

    “Soon, you will be both the Supreme Commander and the Central Army Commander. With the elite army of House ZiChuan at your beck and call, you will guard the House from all threats coming from within! As long as you are here, no one would dare having any rebellious thought! You will be the most famous general of House ZiChuan; your name will become legend, reaching far and wide. Even House Liu Feng wouldn’t dare to invade, lest they incur your wrath! How about it, Stirling? For ZiChuan, for me, for yourself, say yes!”

    Emotions overwhelmed him, his voice hoarse: “I’m deeply humbled, Sir. I would never have dreamed of such grandeur. I’m honoured by the trust you have placed in me. As long as I’m alive, I will strife to the utmost of my abilities to repay the gratitude of House ZiChuan!”

    ZiChuan Shen Xing cheered with joy: “You have made an old man very happy! With you in charge, I will have nothing to regret! I’m sure my niece, ZiChuan Ning will value your loyalty the same way I have. House Stirling’s fate is now intertwined with House ZiChuan’s. We will rise and fall as one! Once you and Li Qing are married, your lineage will continue for countless generations, and your descendants will be born in honor and splendor…”

    It was as if he had been doused with cold water, Stirling’s face instantly paled: “Sir, despite everything you said, I cannot agree to marry Li Qing. I and Ka Dan have promised each other for life.”

    ZiChuan Shen Xing looked at him kindly as he told him in a gentle voice: “I don’t have anything against Princess Ka Dan. I’m sure she is an exceptional woman, or else she wouldn’t have stolen your heart. I’m not saying you have to marry Li Qing either. In fact, if you fancied any lady from any household within House ZiChuan’s borders, I would not only give you my blessing, I would even make it happen… But you cannot marry Ka Dan!”

    “Why? Sir?”

    ZiChuan Shen Xing sighed: “Stirling, how do you not understand? Wake up! Demons are our greatest enemy. You will destined to become the Supreme Commander, leading House ZiChuan’s armies in battle. If you marry their princess, you will have lost all the faith and respect your men had for you. How are you going to lead them then? The Far Eastern Army will be the first to reject you!”

    "Think about it, you and Ka Dan grew up in different worlds. Your living habits are vastly different. You may not realize it now, but once you start living together then things change. Love is not the same as marriage!"

    "Besides, given your position and character, finding a suitable mate will be the least of your problems. The truth is, if you are willing, I can even betrothe ZiChuan Ning to you! By then you will be the Headmaster's husband, and the official regent of the House. You will be second to none!"

    "Consider it for a second, Stirling. As a man, you should attach importance to your work, and put the need of the House above that of your own! The love between a man and a woman comes and goes, it won't last! What is more important? A demon princess? Or your eternal glory and triumph? You are a brilliant man, Stirling. You should know how to make the right decision!"

    Stirling's face paled; he was caught in a maelstrom of emotions. Two conflicting thoughts fought fiercely in the center of his mind, all the while ZiChuan Shen Xing's enticing voice continued to echo loudly between his ears: "Eternal glory! Second to none!" And a moment later, Ka Dan's teary gazes appeared in front of him... The thoughts spun wildly inside his head, as if it was about to explode!

    "Sir, I've already made up my mind."Stirling rose up and gave the man a deep bow, speaking hoarsely: "I will marry Ka Dan." His voice filled with unyielding determination.

    ZiChuan Shen Xing slumped back into his chair, staring at him quietly. His eyes did not seem all that angry, instead, it looked a little bit sad.

    "I'm grateful for everything you have done for me, Sir. I cannot express how much everything meant to me, but I'm terribly sorry. I will have to disappoint you. I hope you can forgive me for my stubbornness. Please believe me when I say that no matter what, my loyalty to House ZiChuan hasn't changed, and never will..."

    ZiChuan Shen Xing interrupted Stirling's words with another gesture of the hand and closed his tiring eyes.

    And silence took over.

    After a long while, ZiChuan Shen Xing finally opened his eyes again, asking softly: "Is that your final decision? Are you really going to resign?"

    "Yes. I wish to apologize thousand times, Sir. But I will not abandon my duty. If you would allow it, I wish to wait until the rebellion in the Far East has ended before I resign and get married. I will not put you in a difficult position, Sir."

    ZiChuan Shen Xing seemed distracted, perhaps he was listening, or perhaps he didn't hear a word he said. In the end, he sighed regretfully: "Perhaps it is fate... Leave me."

    Suddenly, the man seemed to have aged for years. Every wart on his face seemed more obvious as every wrinkle smoothed from the exhaustion, gasping, looking incredibly tired. In that instant, Stirling noticed for the first time, the Headmaster had already become a powerless old man.

    A sense of pity welled up inside Stirling: The old man had so much weight on his shoulders! He probably expected him to share his burdens, and instead, he was mercilessly refused by him.

    The pity turned into guilt: “Sir, you…”

    "Leave..." ZiChuan Shen Xing said it for the second time.

    Stirling couldn’t help but feel: “The old man in front of him was so incredibly fragile, so incredibly lonely!”

    He bowed deeply once more, beseeching earnestly: "I'm leaving, Sir! Please take care of yourself. You are the hope of all of our people! I’m sure everything will turn out for the best in the end. You don’t need worry too much.”

    ZiChuan Shen Xing did not answer.

    Stirling stopped himself in front of the door, turning around and imploring once again: “Please take care of yourself, Sir. I’m leaving.” As he was about leave, a voice called out to him: “Hold on.”

    Stirling turned back: "Sir?"

    ZiChuan Shen Xing’s hand quivered as he pulled open the draw, from which he retrieved a black leathery box: “Here, take this.”

    Perplexed, frowned, Stirling took the leathery box and opened it. Inside was a beautifully crafted diamond sapphire bracelet. Stirling might not be an expert, but he could tell it was worth a small fortune.

    "Give that to Ka Dan. I know you don't have much, but she is a princess. She deserves a token of love worthy of her stature.”

    "Sir, I can't. This is too much..."

    "It's all right. I have always wanted to give that to you on the day of your wedding. Li Qing, Ka Dan, it is all the same. This is just an old man’s blessing to you! I wish you a long and happy life together, and your years be filled with love and joy!”

    Stirling wanted to decline, but somehow he couldn’t utter a word, as if something was stuck in his throat.

    “Do not feel sad. I understand, everyone has their own path to follow. I cannot force mine upon you. We will do as you say. You may resign after the war ends. Unfortunately, I will not be able to attend your wedding. Remember to get as far away from Di Du as possible, and do not come back. You are too good and too honest for this place.”

    “Perhaps after your children are born, you and your family can come visit me, sweep my tomb, light a stick of incense, trim the weeds and clean my gravestone.[[1]] Both you and Ka Dan are beautiful people. I’m sure your children will be just as beautiful. Remember to tell them, here lies your grandfather, Shen Xing. I think by then, you are probably the only one left who still remembers me, and will visit me. Remember, you have to come…”

    Stirling couldn’t contain his emotions any longer as tears sprang to his eyes. He cried: “Sir…” as he leapt into his arms, and tears flowed.

    ZiChuan Shen Xing held Stirling's head tightly and close to his chest, whispering to him: "I have always wondered, if you were my son, or if I had a son like you, how great would that be... It would be wonderful I’m sure….” Tears streaked down his cheeks, and splashed onto Stirling’s thick and black hair.

    <hr />
    [[1]]A common Chinese ritual to honour and pay respect to the dead.
  • **Chapter 08 Part 03 – Year’s End**

    <hr />
    Imperial Calendar, Year 779, winter came especially late this year. The first wave of cold only started to push through Fort Warren and head westwards, crossing the continent, in mid December. Temperature dropped under zero in less than ten hours. Even though the first sight of snow had yet to come, thunder could be heard in the distant sky. In front of the Headmaster's House, a flag post was struck by a sudden bolt of lightning, breaking it in half, which subsequently hit the two guards on duty on the way down. Soon, a downpour hit the area, followed by three days of storm and thunder. When the sun rose again, a colourful arc of rainbow had appeared in the eastern sky, in contrast to the west, where clouds had formed a giant cross over the horizon.

    Not many could recall ever seeing such peculiar sight in the sky except for a few wiser old men who could still recall the winter of fifty years ago. It was the same back then, thunder in the late winter, followed by days of storm. But in the spring, three-hundred-thousand men from the Border Army rebelled against House ZiChuan.

    On the Plain of Ancestors, a place less than ten miles away from Di Du, the Army of ZiChuan encountered the Rebel Forces joined by House Liu Feng's Army, and a fierce battle ensued. The sea of corpses stretched over dozens of miles across the battlefield, more than wild dogs could eat. The old men who remembered the battle firmly believed: "This is an omen. The Army of ZiChuan will engage the Rebel Army in a massive battle of unprecedented scale. The death toll will probably exceed that of the terrible battle of fifty years ago."

    Even though the Council of Elders had already agreed to the terms made by the Rebels and a peace treaty was underway, almost everyone, including the officers, nobles, and even the common peasants had the feeling that, ultimately, a fierce battle against the Rebel Army was inevitable, and a terrible disaster was about to befall them.

    The City of Di Du was in a state of panic, false rumours spread everywhere. Many believed that it was the sins of men that brought the wrath of the heavens upon them. However, as to whom the evil sinner might be, their opinions varied greatly. Some even pointed their fingers at the Supreme Commander - Luo Ming Hai and the Inspector General - Di Lin.

    ……

    As if the world was set out to prove this ominous omen, on December 21st, near the year’s end, a small incident in the Capital had escalated into bloodshed.

    The cause of the incident was quite simple. In a small local tavern in the city, several drunken officers from the High Command started causing a ruckus and got into a fight with the patrolling constables from the Ministry. A small bout quickly turned into an all out battle between the officers and the constables. How it got so out of hand, however, would forever remain a mystery, because none of the officers who first started the riot could still speak.

    ……

    By the time the situation was resolved, the tension between the High Command and the Ministry was at an all-time high, to the point both Commanders could only access their respective workplace under the protection of a large armed escort. Their men treated each others like enemies, piling up barricades along every major street in the Capital. Soon, the city had turned into a warzone, with conflict brewing around every corner. It didn’t take long before everyone came to the realization: We must never put Di Lin and Luo Ming Hai near each other, or a similar riot could happen again at any time.

    In the end, it was Luo Ming Hai who petitioned for Di Lin to be sent to the Far Eastern Front… In fact, the same had been suggested by the Council of Elders much earlier. They thought it was a huge waste to keep such a capable general in the Capital.

    ZiChuan Shen Xing had always been wary of letting him go; Di Lin was like a ferocious hawk. It was easy to set him free, but much harder to rein him in. He was much like a double-edged blade, which could hurt your enemy just as much as it could hurt you. But seeing the situation Di Lin and Luo Ming Hai were in now, he had no choice but to separate them. When he informed Di Lin of his new assignment, Di Lin complained: “Sir, I have done nothing wrong. Why am I being exiled to the distant Far East?” He sounded like an innocent child.

    ZiChuan Shen Xing reassured him: “How is it an exile? The situation in the Far East is still unstable. We need a high ranking officer to supervise the transition. The House has entrusted you with that responsibility. Everything you do there will be important to our war effort!”

    Di Lin kept expressing his reluctance to depart and leave the comfortable lifestyle of the Capital behind. ZiChuan Shen Xing had to pull out every trick in the book to convince him that he wasn't being punished, but instead, that he was being offered a great opportunity. Even though Di Lin reluctantly agreed in the end, in truth, he couldn't be happier: Luo Ming Hai you stupid fool! Once I get to the Far East, I will be like a bird out of its cage. As the highest ranking officer in the Far East, I will have several hundred thousands of House ZiChuan’s finest under my command! The moment ZiChuan Shen Xing dies, I will march for the Capital with a great army. With ZiChuan Xiu and Stirling at my side, what hope will you have to stop me?! Killing you will be like squashing an ant!”

    "Sir, how can I refuse a request coming directly from you? However, there is just one thing I...

    "Oh? You can tell me anything."

    "My wife, Lin Xiu Jia is pregnant and will soon give birth. As you already know, Luo Ming Hai hates me to his core. There is nothing he wouldn’t do! What if he did anything to my wife while I am away from Di Du..." Di Lin wanted ZiChuan Shen Xing to let him take his wife to the Far East, eliminating the only thing they could use against him when the time came.

    "Oh." ZiChuan Shen Xing readily replied: "Is that why you are worried? You have nothing to worry about. I’ll have everything taken care of. Your wife will stay here in my house. No matter how reckless Luo Ming Hai may be, he will not dare to harm her while she is under my roof. I promise you, she will be kept safe."

    The answer caught Di Lin off guard. He hurriedly responded: "That is too kind, Sir. But I wouldn't want to trouble you with my own affairs. If I could just take her with me, I'm perfectly able to..."

    "Hmm? Di Lin, that is very wrong of you. Lin Xiu Jia is with child. How can you let her march with the army? Not to mention you will be putting her in harm's way. Are you worried that I might take advantage of your wife? Haha, I'm old enough to be your father!"

    Cold sweat broke out on Di Lin's forehead as he tried to sound appreciative: "You are making fun of me, Sir." Meanwhile, his head screamed profusely: "Shit, this is bad! I went for the wool and came home shorn! What do I do? What do I say? Damn it!"

    "Very well then, it is decided. Di Lin, if you are still hesitating, then I will have to assume you don't trust me!" ZiChuan Shen Xing's voice turned serious.

    Di Lin jolted, lowering his head: "As you wish, Sir. My wife will be in your care." Before he knew, sweat had soaked through the back of his thick uniform. Smiling, he curtsied as he left the Headmaster's House. He carried that smile all the way back to the Ministry, where he ordered everyone to leave the room. Behind locked doors, his rage flared into a frenzy, shouting: "Damn you, old fox!" By the time he had finished, there was nothing left in the room for him to break.

    ……

    Imperial Calendar, Year 779, December 28th, Forty-thousand Military Constables led by Inspector General Di Lin departed from Di Du, marching for the Far Eastern Front.

    Year 780, January 1st, in the Far Eastern province of Wargo, a Beastman rider raced through the mountain path under the dawning sun and into Xiu's Company's encampment. He quickly dismounted from his sweat drenched horse and spoke to the drowsy guard on duty in fluent human tongue: "Urgent report for Xiu the Lightbringer. I must deliver this to him in person!"

    Xiu's Company spent the whole night celebrating the new year. ZiChuan Xiu had just fallen asleep when Bai Chuan woke him: "Old man Dren has important news." Dren's report got him wide awake if he wasn't already: "We encountered a large unknown Rebel Force in the province of Sha Jia. They have destroyed three of Xiu's Company's Branch Offices, causing significant financial damage." ZiChuan Xiu immediately sent a messenger to inform Stirling of the sudden development.

    Stirling instantly realized the importance of the report. In conjunction with the information he managed to gather, it was clear to him that the situation had reached critical mass. In response, he gave the emergency order to assemble his own forces and wrote a detailed letter to the First Commander Ming Hui stationed in the Far Eastern province of Dusa. In the letter, Stirling listed all the suspicious movements the Rebel Forces made over the recent month, advising him to be on full alert and to pull his forces back into a defensive position in case of an attack.

    A messenger was supposed to deliver the letter, but the Central Army’s Staff Officer Tang Ping needed to discuss other matters with Ming Hui at the time and so, Stirling gave him the letter. However, Tang Ping never made it to Ming Hui’s command tent. In the forest twenty miles out from province Dusa, he encountered the advancing party of the Demon Army. A sharp and strong arrow pierced his lung, sending him tumbling from his horse. As he crashed into the frosty snow, a well of blood gushed from his mouth. Seeing the Demon Dragon Riders rapidly approaching, he tore Stirling’s letter to pieces with his trembling hands and watched the fragments of it get carried away by the wind over the snow covered Far Eastern Plain…

    ……

    That night, the flames of war had painted the sky red. The Demon Army, a great host of four-hundred-and-seventeen divisions, totalling over one-million-and-three-hundred-thousand demons, led by the Invincible Demon God King Himself had crossed the boundary stone marking the border between the Demon Empire and House ZiChuan, and another seven-hundred-thousand allied Rebel Forces of all races marched in front of them as vanguard…


  • **Chapter 08 Part 04 – Heaven’s Fall**

    <hr />
    Under the grey sky, snow rained nonstop.

    The Rebel Army violated the peace treaty and reignited the flames of war. Commander Fang Jin led over a hundred-thousand Militias in eager pursuit of the Rebel Forces after they had ambushed one of his scouting parties. Following their disappearing trail in the rain of flying snow petals, his army had marched into the Plains of Moon Bay.

    In front of them, a large shadow loomed over the horizon. The gasping soldiers hesitantly halted their steps, peering into the distance: “What is that? It is all dark. Is that a forest?” “That does look like a forest, but why is it getting bigger?”

    A veteran soldier tilted his head back slightly, hoping to see further into the distance. He yelled abruptly: “It is moving! That is no forest! It is an army heading our way!”

    The realization spread like a wave as confusion began to ripple through the ranks of the militias: “That is one huge army! They must be the Rebels!” “What do we do?”

    On top of his horse, Commander Fang Jin inspected the lines, shouting: “Do not be afraid! The Rebel Army is made of farmers. They are no match for us on the open field; we can defeat them no matter how many men they have! Form the lines and wait for them to come to us!” His calm and imposing presence quickly brought the soldiers back to themselves. Under his leadership, the militias had started moving into position.

    One group at the time, the militias marched into the open and fanned out across the full width of the plain. In an instant, a giant square formation made of steel was occupying the entire Plain of Moon Bay. Mounted couriers dashed between each smaller formation, relaying the order: “Ready~!” The infantries raised their spears in unison, and a sea of cold steel radiated brilliantly over the giant square formation. Riders readily mounted their horses on the flanks, preparing themselves for the counter-attack against the enemy. Rows upon rows of unsheathed sabres shined like a glittering band of light in the snow. As they waited, snow fell silently on top of their helmets and shoulders, blanketing them in a shallow layer of white.

    From the distance, hooves thundered and earth shook ever so slightly with their every step. An expanse of darkness rapidly approached. Like a tidal wave, a tsunami or the contour of the clouds, its shape became increasingly clearer. Long and sharpened steel extended from the edge of the darkness, behind them, hundreds of thousands of hooves tore across the snow covered plain, kicking up a trail of snow in their wake. It was as if the darkness was galloping amidst the clouds, flying towards them! Like a legendary monster from the darkest part of the earth, ready to swallow anything or anyone standing in its way!


    “Steady!” The mounted couriers dashed between the lines shouting: “Front row, kneeled-position!” The soldiers let the blunt end of their spears rest on the ground, arrowhead facing forward, and went down to one knee, bracing themselves for the impact. The officers shouted loudly next to their ears: “For House ZiChuan! Fight with courage, honor and glory!”


    “Steady!” The couriers shouted the order again. Heeding the command, the soldiers planted their feet deeper into the earth while holding tightly onto their spears. Everyone’s heart pounded against their chest. The soldiers on the front row shivered uncontrollably as they chattered their teeth. Tasked with overseeing the battle, the constables were lined up loosely behind them, aiming their sharpened arrows at the soldiers’ backs. Meanwhile, the enemy forces approached with surprising speed, narrowing the distance with each passing second! The hideous faces of their riders and the steam coming from their horses’ noses were barely visible amidst a sea of banners and a forest of spears. Hundreds of thousands of horses and men in a compact formation surged towards them with the power of a storm and the speed of a hurricane!


    Wind peeled away the shroud of secrecy, revealing the truth behind the snowy curtains. Suddenly, a voice overcome with terror shrieked in the middle of the lines: “Heavens! They are Demons!” Instantly, panic broke out everywhere. Soldiers yelled with complete disregard to army discipline: “Demons! Demons are coming!”


    “Heavens! Run! Run for your lives!” One after another, soldiers threw away their weapons and abandoned their post. Trying to stop them, the officers shouted loudly: “Stand your ground! This is your last warning!”


    “Stop! I order you to stand fast!”


    “Loose!” The Juridical officer mercilessly waved his hand, ordering the constables to let loose a barrage of arrows, felling a row of deserting soldiers in the midst of their outcries. Yet, it did nothing to stem the tide, as more and more soldiers started to flee! Fang Jin shouted on his horse: “Do not be afraid! They are rebels in disguise! Do not be scared! Return to your posts! For House ZiChuan…”


    The heavens collapsed, drowning out his voice in a thunderous roar. “Samuhali! (For the Emperor!)” Demon soldiers roared: “Ougala! (Kill!)” All doubts were erased in an instant, because those were the war cries of the Demon Empire’s Royal Army! Earth shattered and heavens fell. The sight of the green skinned creatures of the Demon Empire had always terrorized humans to their core. They would never forget how, three hundred years ago, it was those monsters who destroyed the once powerful Empire of Light. Less than two-hundred-thousand Demons had swept through the world of Western River, killing the last Emperor and Field Marshal of the Empire of light, annihilating five-hundred-thousands of Empire’s finest on the battlefield of Blue River. The legends described the demons as man-eating, fire-spewing monsters. They were said to be the greatest, cruellest evil of this world!


    The square formation crumbled. Soldiers ignored the orders as they discarded their weapons and fled. Like a flood or a tidal wave, they overran the constables overseeing the battle. Everywhere, voices panicked: “Run! Run! Run for your lives!” The routing soldiers pushed, pulled, collided and trampled over each other, leaving a field of weapons and banners glittering over the battlefield. It took but an instant for an entire army to vanish into thin air, as if it never existed.


    The Demon riders charged into the scattering mass, slaughtering anyone in their path. Blended with countless death throes, thousands of Demonic cheers reached high above the clouds. Fang Jin ceased his pointless shouting. There was nothing left for him to do. Knowing his fate was sealed, he watched in silence as his entire army scattered in front of him, running across the battlefield like scared rabbits. Seeing waves upon waves of soldiers fleeing past him, a horde of demons laughing wildly on their heels, his army being massacred and House ZiChuan’s banner being trampled, he was deeply ashamed. Over a hundred thousand men were defeated without a fight! It was a shameful display a hundred times worse than the battle of Red Lake!”


    Still gasping, his personal guard Captain, Ming Ke ran towards him, asking: “Sir, the Demons will be upon us soon. We need to fall back!” Fang Jin looked at him sideways, not saying a word, then shifted his eyes away from the battlefield, towards the grey sky above. Ming Ke thought he didn’t hear him clearly, he repeated: “Sir, we must retreat! We can still regroup…”

    “Go! Ming Ke.” Fang Jin leapt onto his warhorse as he told him: “When you get back, tell my two daughters that their father was a coward, but he would never do anything to tarnish his name.” He exhaled deeply, and lowered his voice: “Death was but a word! I was such a fool!”

    Ming Ke hurriedly grabbed his reins: “Sir, where are you going?” Fang Jin smiled to him in silence, then pulled his sword free and severed the cord, dashing forward, in opposite direction of everyone else. He charged straight towards the incoming mass of the Demon Army, leaving Ming Ke stunned where he left. The young officer watched the stalwart form of Fang Jin gradually disappearing into the crowd of fleeing soldiers. Everything was so serene and so peaceful. In that moment, above the battlefield deafened by the cries of war, the spirit of a great man ascended.

    That was the last time anyone saw him. He would forever be known as the Valiant Commander. No one quite understood what he meant with his last set of words, except one. Di Lin knew; that was how Fang Jin wished to end his life. He didn’t want to live on under someone else’s thumb. Di Lin cursed softly under his breath: “Idiot.” Then took off his hat and saluted in the direction of the Far East.

    Fang Jin was the first Commander to fall in the War of Holy Defence. He died like a hero, charging head on into the Demon Army all by himself. Both his body and horse were full of arrows before he even got near the Demons, but he was still alive, and he fought on against several of their riders despite the dozen arrows protruding from his armor like the branches from a tree. Demon soldiers realized he was a high ranking officer and tried to capture him alive, but anyone who got within five steps of him was quickly cut down without mercy, leaving a ring of body piling up around him. In the end, the Demon officer was forced to give the order, and over a dozen spears penetrated Fang Jin’s upper torso at the same time. In a fountain of blood, he fell. Two demon soldiers, one green skinned infantryman and a black skinned rider rushed forward to take his head. To their surprise, Fang Jin suddenly rose up from the ground, splitting the green skinned soldier in half, and then he fell, for the final time. The black skinned rider smiled at his dead competitor, exposing his mouthful of rotten teeth. Carefully, he cut off Fang Jin’s head and added it to the chain of heads sitting on the back of his horse.

    That night, the moon above the Plains of Moon Bay shrivelled in darkness, and snow continued to rain. It was as if the Heavens were shying away from the massacre, hiding its eyes behind the clouds. Over a-hundred-thousand Humans were on the run, and over two-hundred-thousand Demons were on the chase. Demon’s excited cheers and Human’s agonized screams echoed in the air. Even though the Human soldiers were already on their knees with their hands raised, begging for mercy, the demon riders never hesitated for a second when they decapitated them, separating their heads from their shoulder. The Demons knew, some of the Human’ heads could fetch them a fair price. Taking in prisoners would only serve to slow them down. It was much faster to simply cut them off.

    In order the escape the Demon pursuers, Human soldiers scrambled over each other to jump into the icy river, trying desperately to swim ashore. However, the Rebel Army of all races had been waiting for them on the other side, and a rain of arrows welcomed them. Struggling, the Human soldiers wailed in the water, waiting for the death to come. Soon, the river was painted red, as the rapid stream carried their drowning bodies downstream… Hundred-and-fifteen-thousand soldiers of House ZiChuan participated in the battle of Moon bay that day, only less than five thousand of them managed to escape the initial onslaught. General Rudy's Demon Army pursued the runners relentlessly along the way, in the end, only eighty seven managed to reach Fort Warren alive. All this time, the snow never stopped falling. And hundreds of thousands headless bodies were buried in the white. It was as if none of it ever happened, the plain of Moon Bay was still so serene, so spotless.

    In the three days that followed, Demon Empire unleashed a series of attack against the defenders. Like an unstoppable flood, the Demon Forces poured through the gap created by Rudy’s Demon Army. Meanwhile, the careless armies of House ZiChuan were expecting a prolonged period of peace, and like sleeping lambs, they never stood a chance against the ferocious wolves of the Demon Empire…

    Deep into the night, the same time when the alert sounded from outside the camp, Demon Dragon Riders broke through the barricades and into the undefended western encampment of the Black Banner Army before any of them could respond, and a massacre began. House ZiChuan’s soldiers woke up into a nightmare. With no weapons in hand, no directions to follow, they were mercilessly cut down by sabres, stabbed by spears and pierced by arrows. Those who survived the demons were trampled by their own, burned down with their tent or drowned in the nearby river… By the time the first light of the morning sun reached them, the western encampment was left with nothing but dead bodies, not one of the twenty thousand men stationed there was still standing.

    Through Far Eastern First Commander, Ming Hui’s heroic efforts, he managed to gather three divisions… it was all the forces he had left…

    In an attempt to thwart the Demon’s advance, he ordered the counter attack. In the province of Dusa, ten thousand Human infantries and cavalries were taught the meaning of desperation as they stared down at the most horrifying creatures in the world… Under the great golden banner of the Demon God King, close to two-hundred-thousand demons and armored beasts of the Royal Guard Brigade marched towards them, seeking to overwhelm them…

    After the battle of Dusa, the entire defence line of House ZiChuan crumbled. First it was only small groups of infantries retreating from the frontlines sparingly, then it was entire division running away, abandoning their position. It didn’t take long before any chance of an organized defence disappeared along with them. In the midst of chaos, and not having a unified command, the remaining militia armies were easily cut off and isolated by the rapidly advancing Demon Army. When confronted by a hopelessly superior force, the undisciplined militias surrendered without a fight. Even though they hastily discarded their weapons, it did not stop the Demons from severing their heads… Next to the pile of headless bodies, the Demons from the Seneya Tribe celebrated their victory as they kicked the skulls of the Human soldiers around like toys…

    Behind the retreating Armies of House ZiChuan, several powerful Demon Armies were in pursuit. Kardun, the Prince of Demons led his army to the north, attempting to close the encirclement on the large armed forces still stationed in province Deja and Iriya. The quiet Demon General, Ling Buxu led his forces south. Following the great road of Far East, his forces marched into the rear and undefended regions of House ZiChuan. When the scouting team of a dozen Demon Dragon Riders suddenly appeared at the Bridge of Blue River, thousands of Human civilian and soldiers broke out in a panic, trying to cross the bridge…

    But far worse, the defenders on the western coast mistakenly assumed it was the bulk of the Demon Army as they began cutting away at the bridge… and soul-tearing screams ensued on the eastern side of the river…
  • **Chapter 08 Part 05 – Stem the Tide**

    <hr />
    Mixed with the fresh air after a long day of snow, the first light of dawn shone through the open windows and into the room.

    The subtle change in the room brought Stirling out of his sleep as he jolted back from the desk. Seeing Deputy Commander Qin Lu coming through the doors, he asked: “Any news?” His eyes were bloodshot; he was drained.

    Qin Lu shook his head, but Stirling wouldn’t give up. He asked again: “I’m talking about the location of Commander Ming Hui and Commander Fang Jin, where are their armies? How can we not know anything?”

    Qin Lu kept shaking his head: “I’m sorry, Sir. The Demon’s scouts are everywhere. They only attack officers and messengers. None of the messengers we dispatched so far has made their way back. In all likelihood, we have been cut off. It is complete chaos out there.”

    Stirling paced back and forth in the room with many thoughts racing through his head: How big is the Demon’s Army? What is their goal? Are they here to seize the Far East? Or are they here to distract us from moving against the Rebels? Is it just another raid? Where is the bulk of their army? It has been three days since the first attack; we still know nothing at all. We are fighting blind! Even worse, I don’t even know where my allies are.

    Stirling couldn’t help but mention the obvious: “We need one alive! Just one!”

    Qin Lu watched him in silence, knowing there was nothing he could do. Since the Central Army was stationed further away from the frontline, it was not hit by the first wave of attacks. Even though Stirling had gathered his forces and were on full alert, they still lost several scouting parties due to the harassments from Demon’s advancing forces. Two days ago, Central Army’s scouting squad Captain, Banner Master Lu Zhen went to gather intelligence on the Demon Army. He promised to bring back a live prisoner within ten hours, but it had been two days, not even a word so far. He was either dead or captured.

    The situation was simply awful, Stirling though. Everything was messed up! He tried focus, asking: “Is there any news from Xiu’s Company?”

    “Sir, the entire Xiu’s company disappeared. Their camp was burned to the ground. I’m afraid that Sir ZiChuan Xiu may have been…”

    “No way. Xiu is clever and capable. I’m sure he is fine!”

    Qin Lu knew he misspoke, hurriedly correcting himself: “Of course. It is as you said, Sir.”

    Stirling inhaled deeply, expelling any worrying thoughts from his mind: “Very well. Qin Lu, we can’t wait like this any longer. I think we should head towards the province of Dusa and regroup with the First Commander. What do you think?”

    Qin Lu hesitated for a moment, finally, he said: “Sir, the Demons seem to have come in force this time. In my opinion, our best course of action is to retreat towards Fort Warren. That is the safest choice.”

    Stirling shook his head: “We can’t run away like this and leave our allies behind. Prepare the men. We are leaving for the province of Dusa.” Under the morning light, accompanied by the rumbling sound of the wagons, the clashing of steel and the neighing of the horses, the Central Army had begun their march eastwards. While they marched down the great road of Far East, Stirling witnessed the most memorable scene of his life. An endless queue of refugees coming down the snaking road, flooding from the east, headed west. Everyone knew: The vicious Demons are coming. The only way to survive is to head west, and go through Fort Warren.

    Some had wagons filled with boxes, some carried their heavy belongings on their back, and some walked along with nothing but their bare feet. A poor old man staggered forward with his sheep. A lady trudged along with a child in her arm, while dragging the heavy luggage over the cold and snow ridden road behind her. Then she fell. The child in her arm cried out, and so did the mother. An endless stream of refugees passed her by, but not one gave her a hand, helping her to get up. The pain and the misery of war had numbed their hearts, and made them selfish. Their eyes were filled with confusion and despair. They have lost their home, lost their land, and lost their families. What would their future be like? Amongst the refugees, many were soldiers. A heavily wounded soldier lay on the stretcher sitting on the side of the road, crying, screaming: “Mother, mother!”

    Limping on his crutches, a soldier who lost his leg cursed with each step he took. His companions had left him behind. Another soldier, covered in dirt and bloodstain from head to toe, sat alone in the snow, grovelling constantly: “I’m from the seventy-first division! Does anyone know where my unit is? I beg you, take me with you! I broke my leg! Please!” Men strode past him with studiously averted eyes; nobody stopped to help him. Eventually he ran out of voice, he cried, but no sound came out. He clawed and grasped at the grass still growing underneath the snow, and like a worm, he crawled forward, moving ever so slowly. The frontlines had crumpled; large group of soldiers joined the ranks of the refugees. A few deserters showed up here and there, the shame had made them take off their hats and uniforms. Dressing like civilians, they walked along them with their eyes held down. But most of the soldiers were a part of an entire division retreating from the frontline. Seeing their faces, Stirling didn’t need to ask, he already saw the desperation in their eyes: The situation at the front is much worse than he had expected.

    His heart ached at the sight of the defeated soldiers. It wasn’t that long when since they were dressed in starched uniforms, singing songs of battle, eyes flashing with pride. Back then, they were so eager to join the battle to defend House ZiChuan. But now, their uniform was torn and dirty. Instead of calling them soldiers, they looked much more like beggars. If anything, those disgraced soldiers could find solace in knowing they were not alone. There were thousands upon thousands of them. Some were even completely shameless about it. An officer shouted on top of his horse: “Get out of my way! I’m a Banner Master!” But the soldiers ignored him. The officer was furious as he lashed out with his whips. Several angry soldiers instantly turned on him, pushing him and the horse down the cliff, where screams echoed in the darkness.

    Under the shade at the corner of an intersection, an officer covered in dirt claimed to have received the direct order from the Far Eastern First Commander himself. He was instructed to stop any soldier from passing through, reorganizing them and readying them for battle.

    “Soldiers, do not be afraid! Stop, come back!” His voice was hoarse: “House ZiChuan is under attack! Our survival is at stake! Protect our home, protect our land! Soldiers, this is a holy war! We must not falter! Be brave! Come back!” He repeated his words again and again, yet, they did nothing to slow down the routing soldiers from walking past him. He grabbed the arm of a nearby soldier; the soldier pushed him away without looking. Pulling free of his weapon, the officer angrily shouted threats and curses. He tried to stop another, and was immediately punched in the face, sending him tumbling backwards.

    Marching through the busy roads filled with wagons and refugees, the Central Army pressed eastwards in battle formation. Unlike the refugees moving in the opposite direction, they were orderly and confident. Everywhere they went, they revitalized those around them.

    Stirling asked every defeated soldier he could find, but what he got was a mixed result: “Yes, we were defeated at province of Sha Jia.” “We were defeated in province of Minske, our Banner Master died.” “Commander Fang Jin? Not sure. I heard he died, or perhaps he was captured. We haven’t seen him.” “Commander Ming Hui? He probably died too. We don’t know! We were surrounded by Demons. Out of the couple thousand men from my unit, only the few of us here made it out of alive. We didn’t have time to look around.”

    The question regarding the size of the Demon Army was even more of a mess. One of the soldiers said there were so many Demons that their lines stretched over dozens of miles, while another soldier argued that there were only a few divisions at most; some even claimed to have seen the Demon God King himself.

    There were all kinds of rumors circulating as well. Some believed the armies of House ZiChuan stationed at the front line had all been defeated, and both Commander Fang Jin and Ming Hui were killed; some heard Commander Ming Hui was fighting back along the coast of Grey Waters, and he had defeated one of the Demon Armies. In the end, it was a wounded soldier that told Stirling: “First Commander Ming Hui’s unit has crossed the western coast of Grey Waters, and retreated from province of Dusa to the provincial Capital of Iriya.” After a series of questions, answers and discussions with his fellow officers, Stirling believed that that particular information was most credible. Thus, he gave the order to change the direction and march for the province of Iriya.

    A day later, Stirling’s forces arrived at the City of Iriya. The situation in the city was no different than what he had seen on his way over. Large waves of deserters flooded into the city after their defeat at the Dusa frontline. Refugees, wagons moved through the streets day and night. It was pure chaos. Most of the government buildings had been abandoned. The market square was filled with defeated soldiers and confused civilians. Everyone was saying: “The Demons are right behind us!” But not a single person took charge of City’s defence.

    The arrival of the Central Army caused a sensation in the city. When the Governor of Iriya, Eeling was informed of Stirling’s arrival, he immediately came to see him.

    “What is the situation?” Skipping the formalities, Stirling asked as soon as he saw him, then added: “Are Commander Ming Hui and Commander Fang Jin here as well? Where is the Demon Army?”

    Eeling looked exhausted; his eyes were red from lack of sleep and his voice hoarse: “Sir Stirling, the situation is pretty bad. I mean really bad! It is good that you are here. Sir Ming Hui is at the Town Hall. Do you wish to see him?”

    “Yes! Lead the way!” Stirling quickly dismounted. Squeezing through the market square crowded with wounded soldiers, he entered the Town Hall. Inside, he saw the Far Eastern Front First Commander – Ming Hui.

    Ming Hui had collapsed. He curled up into a ball and covered his face. Huddling alone in the corner, his shoulders quivered as he cried silently. The way his dirty uniform looked on him was not pretty. It even began to smell… Compared to the gentlemanly and spirited Commander Ming Hui from before, he was truly defeated.

    Deputy Commander of the Black Banner Army standing beside him explained to Stirling: “Three days ago, Sir Ming Hui tried to kill himself once, but I stopped him. He has been like this ever since, huddling in the corner, ignoring everyone, and not eating anything.”

    Stirling walked towards him, speaking gently: “Sir Ming Hui. It’s me, Stirling.” Stirling had to call out his name three times before he reacted. He slowly raised his head; his eyes were glazed with fear, and his face was a ghost, tears and snot everywhere. He stared quietly at Stirling as if he was looking at a stranger.

    Stirling felt so sad seeing him this way, he asked: “Sir, do you know what happened to your Army?” “Do you know where Sir Fang Jin is?” “How many Demons are out there?”

    Ming Hui stared at Stirling like a stranger, not saying a word. In the end, it was that Deputy Commander who answered: “Sir Stirling. The Demons ambushed us three days ago. We were lucky to make it out alive.”

    Stirling turned to him: “What about the western encampment? Where are the rest of your forces?”

    “The western encampment was overrun. Four divisions were cut to pieces. We have lost all contact with our other forces. We only know that entire frontline has crumbled.”

    “What about Fang Jin and his men?”

    “The Militia Army is pretty much gone. If anyone survived, they are now deserters. I asked a runaway yesterday, and he confirms that Fang Jin’s militias were annihilated at the plains of Moon Bay. Over a hundred-thousand militias were killed. Commander Fang Jin… some says he was killed in battle; some says he was captured. Nobody knows for certain.”

    Stirling could feel the strength slowly draining from his legs. He had expected the unfavourable situation, but he never thought they were losing this badly. A whole army was annihilated, and another was crushed. One commander died, and another had lost his mind. He forcibly calmed himself down, asking: “How many troops did Demons deploy? Where are they now?”

    The young officer thought about it for moment, then answered as discreet as possible: “We don’t know the exact size of the Demon Army. But what we do know is that it is not less than three-hundred-thousand.

    Stirling gasped. That was already three times of Central Army’s numbers.

    “As to where they are now, we are not sure either…”

    Stirling finally lost it. Letting his anger pour forth, he criticized him harshly: “How do you not know? What have you been doing? Do you have to wait until the Demons come knocking on our doors? How is it possible that we don’t even know the size of their armies?”

    The officer swallowed hard and said: “Sir, as you know. Before the rebellion, the Far Eastern Army had many non-human divisions stationed near the borders. They were specialized in providing reconnaissance of the Demon Empire’s movements. But after the rebellion, they all joined the side of the Demons. In other words, we are now blind; we can’t see the Demons even if they are right under our noses… In addition, all our forces are drawn from the core regions of the realm after the rebellion. Unlike the Far Eastern Army, we have no experience fighting the Demons at all. Facing them for the first time, we all panicked, and our losses were great. With Sir Ming Hui like this, the Headquarter has fallen in disarray, and we are at a loss of what to do…” Seeing the serious and enraged look on Stirling’s face, he dared not to continue. Instantly, the room lapsed into an awkward silence.

    Stirling suppressed his anger and turned to Eeling: “What about on your end? Do you need help?”

    Standing a few feet away, Eeling listened closely and replied in a low voice: “Sir, we are mostly fine, but there is a decision we have to make right now. Do we defend or retreat? We are all waiting on the decision from the First Commander, but the way Sir Ming Hui is now…” Stirling thought about it for a moment, then asked Qin Lu who came with him: “I need you to write it down.”

    When Qin Lu was ready, Stirling spoke slowly, one word at the time: “Due to the former Far Eastern Front First Commander, Sir Ming Hui’s deteriorating mental and physical condition, I, Central Army Commander Stirling, believe that he is no longer fit to remain in his current position. Under paragraph 2 of article 32 of Rules of Combat, as the highest active ranking officer, I shall assume Sir Ming Hui’s duties and take over the command of all House ZiChuan’s armies operating in the Far Eastern Regions. –Stirling, Imperial Calendar, Year 780, January 8th.”

    Stirling continued: “Make two additional copies of it. One stays with the Far Eastern Headquarters, one stays with the Central Army and send the last one to the High Command. Does anyone have any objections?”

    Everyone shook their heads, including the officers from the Black Banner Army and the officers from the province of Iriya: “No objections! We are willing to follow your command, Sir.”

    “Good, listen up.” Stirling turned towards the Deputy Commander of the Black Banner Army: “What is your name?”

    “I’m Lan Qi, rank…”

    “Ok. Hereby, you have been promoted to the Acting Commander of the Black Banner Army.”

    Lan Qi startled for a second, then smiled with joy: “Thank you Sir! I will not disappoint you! I will do my utmost…”

    “Lan Qi, how many men does the Black Banner Army have left?”

    “Sir, we have lost all contact with the rest of our units. We only have the security guards of the Headquarters here…”

    “Take the guards with you and go out there. You have my order to gather all the able soldiers in the city. I don’t care which unit they are from and what rank they used to hold, they are now all part of the Black Banner Army. I’m giving you the full authority to reorganize them as you see fit. Once you are done, ask Eeling for the weapons. I do not want to see a single able man wandering about on the street after dark. If they refuse, you have the right to execute them on the spot! I will place my Constable Corp under your command as well!”

    Moved by Stirling’s determined and steadfast tone, Lan Qi saluted with military precision: “Yes, Sir!” As he left the room, Stirling turned to instruct Qin Lu: “Assign a platoon from my personal guards to escort Sir Ming Hui to Fort Warren.”

    Qin Lu understood exactly Stirling meant, rather than 'to escort' it was more like 'under escort'. Qin Lu left the room and came back with a few tough looking guards. Meanwhile, Stirling turned to Ming Hui and said: “Sir, your escorts are here!”

    Ming Hui watched him eyes wide with fear, whispering: “No… please…” He huddled even further back into that filthy corner, as if it was the only place he felt safe.

    Stirling couldn’t bear to look at him anymore. He gestured at the guards, telling them to take him outside.

    Ming Hui cried miserably: “Please don’t! I don’t want to die! Don’t take me away! Don’t send me back! Don’t!”

    Stirling said blankly: “Tell them, to treat Sir Ming Hui with care!” and averted his gaze, unwilling to look at Ming Hui’s sorry state. As the guards were forced to drag him away, all the officers in the room couldn’t help but feel sympathy for the man. Everyone realized then, he would never again be that popular Commander they used to know. What awaited him at Fort Warren was the executioner’s blade.

    Stirling sat down and asked Eeling: “How many men do you have?”

    The terrified looks on Ming Hui’s face, when he was being dragged away, were still fresh on Eeling’s mind. Startled a bit, he hurriedly answered: “Sir, province of Iriya used to have over seventy-thousand garrison forces, but now I only have thirty-thousand left. I have lost contact with the rest of my men…” “That is enough!” Stirling interrupted him: “I need you to send scouting parties to both the north and the south. Their primary mission is to find out how far the Demon’s advancing forces have gotten, and where the bulk of their armies are. If possible, capture a Demon alive. Also, I want you to gather your men and assign a few battalions to maintain the order in the city. Furthermore, commandeer all the wagons, I don’t care who owns them, military or non-military, I want them all!”

    “Yes, Sir!” Memorizing every word, Eeling left swiftly to execute his orders.

    Times when the situation was most dire, was when they needed a strong, confident and reliable leader the most. Feeling reassured, all the officers briskly returned to their post and began the preparations. The chaos in the Headquarters had stopped. Patrols once again appeared on the streets maintaining order; large groups of defeated soldiers wandering about were getting organized; one after another, scouting parties were being dispatched in every direction, hoping to gather more intelligence on the enemy. Slowly, but surely, the preparations for battle were being made.

    At nightfall, cheers and joyous laughter rose from outside the Headquarters: "We caught a prisoner! A Demon prisoner!"

    Stirling was very excited about the news, he even praised Eeling for doing a good job. Given the gravity of the situation, Stirling wished to interrogate the prisoner himself. Amongst the soldiers in the garrison forces, a few of the officers spoke the demon language, and were asked to be the interpreters for the interrogation.

    As it turned out, it wasn't too hard getting the Demon soldier to talk. He was practically in shock. The mere threats of torture was enough to make him spill the beans. One of the officer asked: "What's your name?"

    The Demon Soldier answered a few words in his tongue and the interpreters translated: “Mu Juce.”

    “What is your rank in the Demon’s Army?”

    The Demon soldier responded: “Carame.” The interpreters explained: “Sir. That is like a common soldier.” Stirling seemed disappointed. He wouldn’t be able to extract much information from someone like that.

    “When did you join the army? And why?”

    “This autumn. In response to the command of our supreme God King.”

    “Why is the Demon Army attacking us?”

    “His Majesty says, there is a great evil amongst the Humans. His name is Di Lin. He slaughtered our children and bled our people. House ZiChuan even killed our beautiful and gorgeous flower, Princess Ka Dan. It is a debt that must be paid in full!”

    “Where did you come from? What did you do before joining the army?”

    “I was a farmer in the Quqilin area.”

    Stirling started to lose his patience, he interjected: “How many troops did the Demon Empire deploy?”

    The officer translated his message. The prisoner flapped his arms like a bird while muttering a few unintelligible words. The interpreter turned to Stirling, saying: “Sir, he says he doesn’t know exactly, but there are so many of them like the birds flying over the mountain.”

    “How many from his village joined the army with him?”

    “He says he doesn’t know the exact number either, but the recruitment started in the spring last year. From their village alone, one out of every seven males has joined the army. Probably more in the cities.”

    Stirling asked: “Ask him, is the Demon God King with the army? Is he still here?”

    The answer came surprisingly fast: “His Majesty is here.”

    Stirling took a deep breath, standing up and said: “All right, you may continue the interrogation.”

    He had left the room, but thoughts of today’s event were still running in the back of his mind: The situation is obvious. The Demon Empire has planned this attack for a long time! They were watching us while we fought the Rebel Army, waiting until we have exhausted our resources and manpower. Then they chose the icy winter, the season when the Demons are at their strongest, to attack us. Under the leadership of the Invincible Demon God King, and through a series of lightning fast attacks, the Demon Empire wished to crush House ZiChuan’s defences in one fell swoop! No matter whether it was the timing, tactics or strategies, everything was flawless. It was the perfect plan. In Stirling’s memories of the Demons, they were supposed to be a bunch of brutes who knew nothing but charging straight into the battle, and running away at the first sight of trouble. When did they become so clever all of a sudden?

    Eeling approached him, saying: “Sir, our scouts have returned from the north and the south. In both directions, we have spotted large amount of Demon Forces heading west approximately a hundred miles from our current position. The scouts couldn’t find a way to get past them.”

    Stirling calmly asked: “How many?”

    Eeling’s face paled as he answered: “Too many. We can’t be certain, but they are everywhere.”

    “Tell the scout Captains to get in here. I want to ask them myself.”

    The questioning only took half an hour. The situation was getting more dangerous by the second. Demon’s Forces had been sighted in the province of Yun, Minske, Sha Jia, Dusa and even in the province of Wargo far behind the frontlines. The red arrow representing the two provinces still in the hands of the Human defenders were caught in the middle of two larger black arrows. Like an egg caught between the pincers, it could be crushed at any moment. But why didn’t they attack the Central Army stationed in the province of Iriya? It only took a brief moment, and Stirling had found the answer. The Demon Empire wished to surround us from all side, and swallow the several million civilians and soldiers in one giant gulp!”

    Stirling instantly declared: “We cannot defend this city anymore! Eeling, take your men and prepare the evacuation for all the residents in the province of Deja and Iriya! Be swift and get it done before they can complete the encirclement!”

    Eeling protested: “Sir, I have less than thirty-thousand men. It is going to take two weeks at least to evacuate several millions of civilians. The Demons will never let us escape…”

    “Move as fast as possible! Save as many as you can! The Central Army will cover your rear.”

    Eeling thought: that is not enough either! The Demons have come in force, how is the Central Army going to cover such a wide area of attacks with only so few of them? Noticing the anxiety and urgency in Stirling’s hoarse voice, he didn’t ask and did as he was instructed.

    *Bong! Bong!* the powerful gong resounded again and again, through the night sky of the city, signalling the full scale evacuation of all civilians in the province of Iriya.

    Qin Lu in charge of the interrogation came out and informed Stirling: “Sir, the prisoner told us the location of the Demon God King. The Imperial entourage has made camp at the Maple Forest in the province of Dusa.”

    “Very good! Summon all the Division Leaders, I have orders to give.”

    Qin Lu complied without question. In less than ten minutes, twenty of Central Army’s Division Leaders had gathered. Stirling walked amongst them, speaking loudly: “The time is of the essence. I want everyone to return to your unit this instant! Prepare your men for battle! We depart in two hours!”

    The Division Leaders shared a look with each other. Most of them only just got here; the soldiers barely had any time to rest, and they had to march out again? Finally, it was the third Division Leader, Wen He who asked the question everyone was dying to ask: “Sir, if I may. Where are we headed?”

    Stirling spoke in a clear voice: “We are going to kill the Demon God King!”

    *Ba-thumb*, someone fell from his chair backwards…
  • Chapter 08 Part 06 - Demons

    <hr />
    Forward! Towards the West! On the meandering Great Road of the Far East, an endless line of Demons marched westwards, crossing the province of Minske. The army in question was no other than the victor of the plain of Moon Bay, General Rudy's army. Everywhere the eyes could see, a sea of banners swayed in the wind, while spears and blades shined even brighter than the snow itself. The new and mighty conqueror of the Far Eastern Regions marched proudly under the daylight.

    Standing on top of a hill adjacent to the long road, Duke Rudy gazed upon his mighty army. In that instant, a feeling of overwhelming power washed over him. I have the mightiest army under my command. With it, I will destroy the indestructible, impenetrable Fort Warren. I will make the Great Empire bow before me, I will conquer the whole world, I will pile up the bodies of Humans onto a mountain, and use them as stepping stones to ascend to Greatness!

    Seemingly catching on to his thoughts, the General of the Imperial Guards - Yun Qian Xue smiled: "What a great army! Your Grace is truly the greatest!" Even though his words were nothing but praises, the way Yun Qian Xue said it, half seriously and with a mysterious and never-ending smile, Rudy couldn’t tell whether that cynical and pretty-faced fellow was really praising him or mocking him.

    Rudy was a lowborn. He always had an inferiority complex to the likes of Yun Qian Xue, who was educated and a member of the royal family. The more inferior he felt, the more arrogant he behaved. He would constantly remind everyone of his overdeveloped muscles and many terrible scars, in an atten Xue quickly averted his gaze, concealing his laughter from him.

    Recollecting himself, Yun Qian Xue spoke abruptly: "Your Grace, obtaining the opening victory on the plains of Moon Bay has greatly boosted the Empire's morale. His Majesty is most pleased!"

    When the name of the Supreme God King was mentioned, even the disrespectful Rudy dared not ignore him. Besides, the man in front of him, the Imperial General, had the Emperor’s favour, and was a close confidant to the “Mad Dog”. All the more reason to get on his good side. Trying very hard to sound modest, Rudy spoke: “It is all thanks to His Majesty’s great wisdom…”

    “However, although you have annihilated an entire House ZiChuan’s army, you have failed to kill the enemy general, Fang Jin, robbing the Empire of a total victory. His Majesty was not pleased with the result. He even said: “I thought Rudy was a capable general, who would have thought he’d turn out to be so useless?!”

    “Just enough; exactly how I wanted.” Yun Qian Xue watched Rudy’s reddened cheeks in satisfaction. Even that thick layer of rough hair on his face could not hide his anger. “I just made that up for you. His Majesty didn’t even bother to react to the report, less so feeling displeased about it. I doubt a wild bear like you would dare confront his Majesty about it.”

    Rudy roared furiously: “General Yun, I told you a thousand times! We definitely killed Fang Jin. I can show you his uniform and the Commander’s golden star epaulet!”

    “I saw but a headless body.” Yun Qian Xue responded calmly.

    “But that is…”

    “How are you going to prove to His Majesty that it was indeed Fang Jin’s body?”

    “The uniform and the epaulet…”

    “Perhaps the cunning Fang Jin gave his uniform to a fellow soldier while he was long gone. The Humans are all despicable cowards. Isn’t that what you keep telling me?”

    “But that was really…”

    “I know, and I believe you. The question is, how do you make His Majesty believe you?”

    No matter how much Rudy stamped with rage, that shallow smile never once left Yun Qian Xue’s face. As Yun Qian Xue picked softly at the petals of a wildflower in his hand, it made Rudy absolutely furious. There were hundreds of thousands of heads rolling about, the size of a small mountain. How was he supposed to find the head of a man he had never met?! If that annoying pretty face wasn’t the envoy of the Emperor but a subordinate of his, he would have cut him down where he stood!

    After having a little bit of fun, Yun Qian Xue spoke casually: “Well, there is always a way…”

    “Really?” Rudy instantly calmed down, waiting patiently for the next set of words to come out of Yun Qian Xue’s mouth. Yun Qian Xue stared at the sky, at the ground, at the trees on the side of the road and at the flowers growing in the grass, anything but the words Rudy wanted to hear. Every movement, every facial expression he made spoke only one thing: “Beg me!”

    Rudy asked reluctantly: “General Yun, why aren’t you saying anything?”

    “Oh!” As if he just noticed someone was standing beside him, Yun Qian Xue looked to the sky and said: “The weather sure is great today!”

    Rudy smiled dryly in agreement: “Hehe. Yes, indeed.”

    mpt to overcome the grace of others that he did not possess and of which he was incredibly jealous, with his own brutishness. Ignoring him, Rudy sneered pompously to the sky, as if he hadn’t heard a word Yun Qian Xue just said.

    As an envoy from the Emperor, Yun Qian Xue was quite handsome. Despite his refined scholarly upbringing, he did have a bit of manliness customary of a soldier. He was born into the House of Yun, a famous household known for having produced many generations of excellent generals and which was considered as the famous House amongst all famous Houses of the Demon Empire. Unlike many, Yun Qian Xue's own performance had lived up to the name of the House, and was regarded as the elite of this generation of Royal children. He was often praised for his poise and demeanor, even by the Emperor, who had promised to betroth his beloved daughter to him. If it wasn't for Princess Ka Dan's untimely death during the previous encounter with House ZiChuan, Yun Qian Xue would have been a prince by now. Even so, the Emperor still favoured him greatly, promoting him to the Commander of the Guard Brigade, the Imperial General.

    Seeing Rudy's rudeness, Yun Qian Xue laughed instead of showing his anger. Before he came here, the Second Prince, Kalan had told him: "Rudy is infamous for three things, barbarism, ruthlessness, and..." Kalan purposely stopped for a second. "He is unbelievably ugly!" Looking at him from an angle, Rudy had a monkey-like face, bull-like ears, dog-like nose, fish-like eyes, ram-like horns, horse-like neck, bear-like body and a pig-like brain. Yun Qia

    “The view is nice too!”

    “Hoho. Yes, of course.”

    Yun Qian Xue rambled on: “The Far East is such a beautiful place; it should have been ours ages ago. Damn those thieves of House ZiChuan! How dare they keep it from us for so long! They cannot be forgiven! No matter, His Majesty is the God reborn. We will soon conquer the world! It won’t be long now, the day the radiance of…”

    Yun Qian Xue was getting sidetracked, talking about this and that in a drawn out fashion, lasting over half an hour. All the while Rudy stood beside him, too afraid to interrupt. He could only stomp his feet in frustration. Finally, while Yun Qian Xue was catching his breath, he hastily asked: “What about the thing you were talking about earlier?”

    “What did I say?” Yun Qian Xue asked perplexed: “The part where we are going to conquer the world?”

    “Erm, no. Before that.”

    “Oh! The part about House ZiChuan, and that we are going to destroy them.”

    “A little bit before that.”

    “You mean the part about how great His Majesty is. Why, Your Grace does not agree?”

    Rudy jumped, explaining himself in a hurry: “Of course I do. I’m His Majesty’s most loyal servant…”

    “Yes. I’m sure His Majesty will be happy to know you have been very loyal. Now that my mission here is at an end, I shall bid my farewell. I sincerely wish Your Grace to be ever victorious in your upcoming battles!” With that, Yun Qian Xue was getting ready to leave.

    Rudy had to plea: “Please wait, General Yun. You were saying earlier, that there may be a way…”

    Rudy purposely stopped there, hoping Yun Qian Xue would finish the rest of the sentence. Somehow, Yun Qian Xue seemed to have forgotten all about it, not saying a word. Rudy had no choice, and was forced to continue: “I hope you can teach me the ways. Rudy will forever be in your debt.”

    “Oh! About that! You should have asked me sooner, Your Grace. I almost forgot all about it!” Yun Qian Xue smiled on the inside: “It is simple, Your Grace. The problem right now is that you can’t find Fang Jin’s head, correct?”

    “That is right.”

    “Then don’t! You have his epaulet and uniform. All you need to do is to grab any human head, and say that you have killed him!”

    “But, but that would be deceiving the Emperor. It is a serious offence!”

    “Haha, Your Grace must be tired! Think about it for a second. Who has really seen the face of Fang Jin in the palace? Marquis Halcyon is the only one who could recognize him. As long as he is willing to vouch for you, saying: “Yes, that is indeed Commander Fang Jin!” Who else could possibly refute him?”

    “Marquis Halcyon? That treacherous dog?” Rudy’s voice was filled with contempt hearing the mention of that name: “But why would he lie for me?”

    “Haha. You are wrong again, Your Grace! Didn’t you tell me that Fang Jin is definitely dead? So how is it a lie? As a subject to the Emperor, it is your duty to please His Majesty. No one can fault you for that!”

    “I understand, but I have never been a friend to Marquis Halcyon. Why would he help me?”

    “Well, Your Grace need not worry, because Marquis Halcyon is a great admirer of the Second Prince. If His Highness gives the word, I’m sure Marquis Halcyon will agree.”

    The Second Prince was Kalan, the second son of the Demon God King and a reckless madman who often indulged in wine and women. The Demons called him the “Mad Prince” in public, and the “Mad Dog” in private. For some strange reason, Yun Qian Xue, a famous general with great prospects and blessed with royal blood, refused to serve the First Prince - Kadun. Instead he was incredibly close to the Mad Dog – Kalan.

    Hearing Kalan’s name, Rudy blurted the word: “The Mad Dog?!”

    Yun Qian Xue’s eyes instantly turned cold and his expression turned lethal. Rudy could feel his heart freezing as he quivered uncontrollably under his icy glare.

    Yun Qian Xue hastily suppressed his killing intent, thinking to himself: How dare you insult His Highness in front of me?! Had you done so a year ago, I would have killed you where you stand! Rudy, you may act arrogant all you want, but if you make me your enemy, I can take your head within twenty moves! Luckily for you, by His Highness’ orders, you will get to live for a while longer…

    Yun Qian Xue cracked a smile, saying: “As you said, Your Grace. You are not well acquainted with the Second Prince, but His Highness has heard much about you and your bravery. He has always hoped to befriend a brave warrior such as yourself, Your Grace! As a token of goodwill, His Highness is willing to let Marquis Halcyon vouch for you, no strings attached.”

    Rudy had yet to recover from the assault to his senses earlier. What was that sudden feeling of terror all about? Was it an overwhelming killing intent? How is that possible? I’ve been through hundreds of battles. I’ve killed countless enemies. I’m the mighty General Rudy. How could I possibly feel threatened by a meek looking pretty boy like him?! Was I mistaken? Right, I had to be. Perhaps the days are getting colder, I should wear another coat.

    Regarding Yun Qian Xue’s suggestion, he was still considering it. Even though Rudy was a brute, he knew that deceiving the Emperor was a grave offence, especially since the Emperor was the wisest being he had ever known. If his lie was ever discovered…

    Yun Qian Xue didn’t try to pressure him. He laughed: “I didn’t know Your Grace was such an honest man. I’m truly impressed! If Your Grace is not interested in claiming your prize, then forget I said anything. I heard that in the south, General Ling Buxu killed many enemies as well. I’m sure he would be interested.”

    The effect was almost instantaneous. The mere thought of letting everything he had fought so hard for, the big prize of killing the enemy General, fall into the hands of that hateful Ling Buxu… was enough to make him fume. He argued: “Wait, hold on! General Yun, I will do as you say! Please let His Highness know that I will be forever grateful!”

    “Haha. As I said, His Highness has great respect for you! We are all friends now. I promise you, His Highness is always true to his word!” Yun Qian Xue smiled, thinking: different baits for different fish. For an angry bear like you, haha, the best way is to dangle a piece of honey in front of your face. His Highness is truly wise. Is there anything he can’t foresee in this world? Rudy, once you take the honey, you will have to dance at the whims of His Highness for the rest of your life!

    “Hehe.” Rudy laughed dryly, seemingly realizing something was amiss: Since when did he become a friend with that pretty face?

    Yun Qian Xue didn’t give him time to think, speaking promptly: “Very well. Shall we start drafting the letter for the Emperor? I will deliver it and the rest of the evidence to His Majesty right away. In case someone tries to steal what is rightfully yours!”

    Rudy didn’t hesitate as he began drafting the letter. In it, he detailed how he had killed the enemy Commander – Fang Jin with his bare hands and crushed House ZiChuan’s Army with minimal casualties on the plain of Moon Bay, then handed all the evidence to Yun Qian Xue.

    Yun Qian Xue took a glance at the letter, smiling ominously: With his handwritten letter, I now have proof of his treachery! Naturally, as long as he behaves nicely, there is no need for me to ever play this card.

    Though at the same time, Yun Qian Xue felt a little bit sad for having to manipulate a brainless bear like him. It was a job beneath him. As a General, his biggest wish was to face off against a powerful enemy on the battlefield.

    Yun Qian Xue gazed towards the distant west, praying silently: “Di Lin… Before I exact my revenge, you better not lose to anyone else! Or I will not be able to live with myself! But before I defeat you, I will first take down one of your equals, Stirling. His death will summon forth our destined battle! You better not disappoint me! Di Lin!”

    A mounted courier suddenly came into view below the hillside, heading directly towards them. Rudy’s guard instinctively stepped forward to stop him. Seeing the urgent expression on this courier drenched in sweat, Yun Qian Xue turned to Rudy, saying: “Your Grace, we should let him through!”

    With a simple gesture from Rudy, the guards quickly moved aside. Rushing forth, the courier dismounted and dropped down to one knee: “Your Grace, I have an urgent report!”

    Rudy sneered: “Speak!”

    “The Human’s Central Army has launched a large scale counter attack. Their army has crossed the River of Grey Waters and defeated three of our forces, over seventeen divisions, in the process! Baron Mu Yinan was killed! Stirling’s army is closing in on the Maple forest where His Majesty is currently staying!”

    The news came as a shock to both Rudy and Yun Qian Xue, but it was Yun Qian Xue who asked first: “Is His Majesty safe? How many men does Stirling have?”

    “His Majesty is fine, but Stirling’s Army is very powerful. The rumors say he has succeeded the First Commander of the Far Eastern Front. He is now in charge of all the Human Armies operating in the Far East, over five-hundred-thousand men in total!”

    Rudy and Yun Qian Xue shared a look, sensing the fear in each other’s eyes. In order to crush the remaining Human resistance, during the last high ranking war council, the head advisor, Mr. Heisha devised a massive encirclement plan spanning across seven provinces. The goal was the total annihilation of the remnants of the Human forces stationed in the province of Deja and Iriya. And the plan was to deploy the Demon Army and the Rebel Army, a massive force totalling over two million men, to the seven adjacent provinces.

    The initial intelligence suggested that the Human Forces totalled five-hundred-thousand at most. After the first wave of attacks, there shouldn’t have been much of it left. The fact that Stirling still had such a large force at his disposal came as a huge surprise! Now with the Demon Forces spread thin all over the region, they now faced the risk of being divided and conquered by the much more mobile forces of Stirling.

    Even worse, Stirling’s goal seemed to His Majesty himself! At this very moment, the Emperor's entourage was protected by two-hundred-thousand Guards at most. If the Tiger of ZiChuan was really as terrifying as the rumors say…

    Rudy thundered: "That damned Marquis Halcyon! What kind of bogus intelligence did he feed us?! He was completely wrong about the size of House ZiChuan's army! I will skin him alive if I ever see him again! And Advisor Heisha, always acting as if he was the smartest one in the room, what a great plan that turned out to be!"

    Leaping onto his horse, Yun Qian Xue remained silent. A fiery will burned brightly in his heart: Tiger of ZiChuan, you did not disappoint me! Come, you are mine!

    Seeing Yun Qian Xue leaving, Rudy hastily asked: "General Yun, what should I do? Do I keep marching west as planned, or..."

    "Your Grace, you are the Commander of this army. You must make that decision yourself! This is an urgent situation, I must go!" Accompanied by a score of Imperial Guards, Yun Qian Xue rode forth like a swift wind, leaving a trail of sand stirring in the air.

    As Yun Qian Xue's shadow vanished in the mist of sand, Rudy began to think: What do I do? Unlike Yun Qian Xue and the other royalties, the reason Rudy could rise from the bottom all the way to the high rank of a Duke and the Commander of an Army, was because he was relentless, ruthless and fiercely loyal to the Demon God King. Coming up with ideas and plans were not his forte; he was much better when he had a clear instruction or plan to follow.

    But now the situation had changed. He couldn't ask the Emperor; he couldn't ask the two Princes; he couldn't even ask the Head Advisor Heisha for instructions. Rudy had no choice but to resort to his already lackluster brain: What do I do? Keep going or turn back?

    Perhaps it was a miracle or eagerness that led to his inspiration as an idea suddenly popped into Rudy's head. Isn't this the perfect chance to prove myself to the Emperor? If I can defeat the famous Tiger of ZiChuan, I'll have truly distinguished myself! I can kill a million runaways or civilians, but none of it matters when compared to having defeated Stirling! Besides, if I'm lucky...

    Images of glorious battles swirled inside Rudy's mind as he laughed, gritted his teeth, and tensed up in rapid succession. His guards all stared at him with unease: Is he going mad? I hope he doesn't lash out on me!

    "Listen up!" Rudy had made up his mind. Fort Warren was not going to fly away. He could

    always attack it later if necessary, but the chance to rescue His Majesty was a once in a lifetime opportunity. It would be such a shame if he was to let it slip through his fingers!

    Rudy gave the order: "Inform all units, we are going to turn around and head for the Maple Forest!" A long line of Demons began to turn as ordered, converting rearguards into vanguards, marching in the direction from whence they came.

    Rudy praised himself softly under his breath: I'm simply too clever! A lesser man wouldn't have come up with such a smart idea! No one will dare to call me all brawn and no brain ever again after I cut off the head of Stirling! I have to keep my army's movements a secret. I can't let the other forces get ahead of me and take away my prize, or all will be for naught!

    What he didn't realize however, was that almost all of the Demon Generals had come to the same conclusion: It was a golden opportunity to prove themselves to the Emperor!

    Perhaps it was the chance to prove their loyalty, or perhaps it was the chance to defeat the famous Tiger of ZiChuan, or perhaps they were genuinely concerned about His Majesty's safety. Either way, all the Demon Generals heading deep behind House ZiChuan's lines decided to turn around, making a headlong dash towards the province of Dusa, hoping to be first to defeat the Central Army and cut off Stirling's head.

    Head Advisor Heisha fumed with rage underneath his veil. A perfect encirclement plan went up in smokes before it even began. He stomped his feet, screaming: "Back! Go back!" But how could the generals let go of what was soon to be theirs: an ambitious dream to be the champion who rescued the Emperor! They waited patiently, staring over the horizon. Like pining for the return of their loved ones, they waited in anguish, hoping for Stirling to show up, sighing profusely: "Stirling, where art thou?"

    And for that reason, a total of four million civilians from the province of Deja and Iriya barely made it out of the encirclement of the Demon Armies, escaping to the core regions behind Fort Warren. Imperial Calendar, Year 780, January 21st, a group of three-hundred-thousand civilians, the last group of refugees, made it safely to Fort Warren. Less than ten miles away from their position, twenty thousand Far Eastern Garrison Forces, tasked with covering the retreat, engaged the Demon Army led by General Ling Buxu in a fighting withdrawal. He was the first one to continue the pursuit of the Human Refugees. During the battle, Red Banner Master Eeling was killed, and was promoted to Deputy Commander posthumously by the High Command. With Deputy Commander Lin Bing's help, the rest of Eeling's forces all managed to retreat into Fort Warren.

    Meanwhile, Stirling's Army remained in the province of Dusa, a place nearly a thousand kilometers away from Fort Warren, distracting the Demon Army's attention. Surrounding him in a radius of a hundred kilometers, over a million Demon- and Rebel Forces had gathered, and more were arriving constantly every day…


  • **Chapter 08 Part 07 – Counter Attack**

    <hr />
    Imperial Calendar, Year 780, January 9th. Late in the evening, a giant red moon rose from the bare forest. Its bloody radiance mixed with the roaring flames of war to burn through the curtains of mist obscuring both banks of the River of Grey Waters, illuminating the snow capped mountain ridges.

    At midnight, the Demon Forces stationed at the western bank of the River of Grey Waters felt the silent rumbling of the earth beneath their feet. Barefoot demon soldiers rushed out of their tents one after another, screaming uncontrollably as though they were living a nightmare.

    Like ghosts in the dark, an iron wall of ten thousand heavy cavalry in a square formation charged in from a distance. A dense formation of black armored riders spread their wings in the gloomy darkness, thundering forth in a ghastly, deafening rumble of iron hooves, like a mountain of blades, a sea of death. They swept through the land like a whirlwind, destroying everything in their path. Before the terrifying current of destruction, Demon barricades, tents, woodwork, horses, and men were all shredded away like paper. Mired in an ocean of death throes, crushed by the unbearable pressure of the iron flood, the Demon soldiers scattered in all directions.

    Stirling’s Army started the attack on the Demon encampment. Shortly after midnight, ten-thousand heavy cavalries had seized the Vaga crossing, tearing several thousand Demon defenders to pieces. At the same time, next to their forgotten corpses, five pontoon bridges were assembled over the surface of the River of Grey Waters, allowing the massive infantry divisions to swiftly cross the greatest river in the Far Eastern Region. By dawn, Stirling’s forces had appeared undetected on the eastern bank of the River, outside the walls of City - Payi.

    Baron Mu Yinan’s forces spent the whole night celebrating; the constant victories had made the Demon General complacent, not even a single guard stood watch that night. Under the cover of darkness, large groups of Human infantrymen snuck over the walls of the slumbering city. The endless arrowheads of their spears flashed brilliantly in the dark, like stars in the clear night sky. The soldiers quickly took control of all the important crossroads in the city, capturing both of the city gates. Five thousand longbows were strung, aiming directly at the gates of the Demon Encampment inside the city.

    Finally, with everything set, Stirling gave the order: “Go!” Soldiers dumped the oil and an array of burning torches was flung over the wooden palisades. Instantly, the entire Demon’s Camp was drowned in fire. Some of the Demon soldiers who were more sober than the rest managed to escape the sea of flames, dashing out of the gates, shouting: “What is going on?” The answer came in the form of several arrows that pierced their skull.

    Over twenty thousand Demon died in the fire that night, and the lucky ones who didn’t, found themselves surrounded by hundreds of angry Human soldiers wielding sharpened blades. Stirling did not intend for the massacre to happen, but nothing he said worked. Even the few Division Leaders who agreed to stop would secretly encourage their soldiers: “Kill them all!” In the end, Stirling had to send out his personal guards to get the Demons out from under the butcher knives of his own men. Those dozen Demons were the last survivor of Baron Mu Yinan’s unit.

    From the mouths of the prisoners, Stirling found out about the imminent arrival of another Demon Army, a group of three divisions, over ten thousand men. They were meant to join Mu Yinan’s forces in the City of Payi, and were supposed to arrive later today. The valuable information couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Stirling immediately gave the order to put out the fire in the Demon’s Camp, but most importantly, to preserve the Military Warehouses where their uniforms and armors were stored…

    ……

    As it turned out, the prisoner did not tell the whole truth, the arriving army was not a small group of three divisions, but a large group of ten infantry divisions led by Demon General Ora! When the long line of marching Demons arrived at the gate of Payi, nothing seemed out of the ordinary. Soon, the gate was raised, and a few lazy guards stood on both sides of the gate, basking under the sun. Everything seemed as they should, except the few wisps of black smoke rising in the distance, and the stench of burnt flesh in the air... But that was normal too, especially in the regions recently conquered by the Great Demon Army.

    General Ora frowned: Seriously? Hasn't Mu Yinan had enough fun yet? What is there left for us to do if he kills all the human prisoners? Feeling slightly annoyed, he never once noticed the odd expressions showing on the Demon Guards standing near the gate. By regulation, Ora was supposed to send out scouting parties before entering a city. Perhaps it was due to being away from the frontline and in Demon controlled territory, or the fact that ever since the start of this war, the powerful Demon Army had yet to face any serious challenge, either way, Ora ended up making the same mistake Mu Yinan made by bypassing the army regulation. And thus, over thirty-thousand unsuspecting Demons began marching into the city in loose formation, laughing, smiling; some even left their weapons on the back of their horses.

    Seeing as General Ora himself was coming through the gate, and the terrible massacre was about to repeat itself, a patriotic Demon prisoner finally mustered his courage, yelling: "General Ora! It is a tr..."

    Suddenly, a swift arrow came out of nowhere piercing the soldier's throat, felling him before he could make another sound. Chaos broke out. While the Demons were still trying to find the assassin, the heavy gears had churned, turning the huge city gate into a meat grinder as it was dropped right on top of several Demon riders, crushing them into a pulp. General Ora, barely avoiding the same terrible state, shouted angrily: “What is going on up there?! You almost got me killed! Raise the bloody gate now! Or I will send an arrow through your…” Before he could finish, another arrow came, killing him where he stood.

    In an instant, row after row of archers lined up on top of the walls, unleashing a storm of arrows upon the unsuspecting Demon soldiers from General Ora’s unit, dropping men and horses alike. The sudden closing of the gate cut the Demon forces in half. Without their General, the Demon Army fell into disarray, unable to decide whether they should fight or retreat. Inside the city, the same massacre continued. From every direction, Human soldiers appeared on the rooftops and behind the corridors, attacking the Demon soldiers with arrows, spears and sabres. Standing in the middle of the streets, with no cover hide behind, the Demon forces were quickly routed into a panicked retreat, scattering in all directions deeper into the streets of the city, where another set of traps were laying in wait.

    The second in command of Ora’s forces was a bit slow on the draw; Still thinking it was all a big misunderstanding, he shouted loudly: “Stop attacking! We are friendlies!” The result was another downpour of arrows and a wave of laughter. Finally, he realized what was going on: Shit! They are Humans! The humiliation of being made a fool of blinded his senses and made him give the order: “Attack! Kill them all!” forcing his already weakened army to scale the walls. The only outcome of such ill-prepared and forced attack was leaving another several thousand corpses behind in front of the walls, which also cost them the opportunity to retreat. By the time he had realized something was amiss, earth shook from beneath him as an expanse of black armored heavy cavalry emerged from the forest behind him, surging forth like a tidal wave… Not many Demons from Ora’s unit survived the battle, and none from the ones who were trapped inside the city.

    Less than twenty-four hours, Stirling had defeated three groups of Demon forces, totalling over forty thousand men, but that was not enough. In order to really get his message across, Stirling divided his force into several smaller groups, instructing each of them to carry more banners!

    The officers protested: “Sir, we don’t have that many banners!”

    Stirling replied impatiently: “Who says they have to be real banners? Just find a stick and a piece of cloth!”

    ……

    Everywhere they went, the sea of banners brought fear to the heart of every demon along the road. According to Human Army Custom, each battalion was only to have one Bannerbearer. The number of Stirling’s Banners… well, was simply too many to count for the few Demons frantically trying to escape.

    If they only knew, the moment after the sun had set in the west, the impressive Army of Stirling immediately grabbed their fake banners and ran back to the City of Payi. In the few days after the battle, Stirling’s forces flaunted their banners in the exact same fashion, purposely making themselves visible to the Demon scouts.

    ……

    Before long, a flurry of reports arrived at the Demon Headquarters, each of them describing the same terrible truth. A large Human Army was on the move, sweeping towards them. After each subsequent report, the size of Stirling’s Army multiplied, from the initial a hundred-thousand to two, three, even four-hundred thousand… and kept increasing…

    In addition, according to the latest reports, the massive Army of Stirling was headed directly towards the Emperor’s entourage staying in the Maple Forest! Yet, the whereabouts of Stirling’s Army made every Demon General scratch their heads as no one could ever pinpoint the exact location of the bulk of Stirling’s seemingly overwhelming forces!

    Ultimately, all the sightings could only lead to one logical conclusion and served to further prove the devious nature of the Human Army. Stirling had to be lurking somewhere in a nearby forest, waiting to ambush the Emperor’s entourage. It was a well known tactic in the Human’s book, the Art of War, to cut off the head of the snake! Kill the enemy leaders first, incite chaos, then divide and conquer!

    “As expected from the Tiger of ZiChuan, he is very cunning indeed! Luckily we have seen through his petty tricks; we will not fall for his traps!” Commander of the Guard Brigade in charge of Emperor’s safety, Duke Leo beseeched in earnest: “Your Majesty, right now, Stirling’s Army has the advantage in numbers. There is no need to put your safety at risk. If I may be so bold, perhaps Your Majesty should retreat…”

    The God King smiled with pride, saying: “We do not shy away from anyone.”

    All his subjects praised in unison: “Hail to the Emperor! The God King shall reign supreme! Stirling stands no chance against our mighty Army. He is digging his own grave!”

    Amidst the singing of praises, the mysterious black cloaked and veiled Head Advisor, Heisha whispered from behind: “Your Majesty, what if it was Duke Zuo Jia Ming?”

    The Demon God King turned towards him, whispering so softly only Heisha could hear: “Even if it was Duke Zuo Jia Ming himself, I would cut him down just the same.”

    The God King smiled. His imposing blue eyes was as unpredictable as the vast ocean and as hazy as the mist on a winter’s dawn. They were simply magnificent.
  • **Chapter 08 Part 08 – Night Raid**

    <hr />
    The Demon's worries were unfounded. Stirling might be mad, but he would never send the Central Army alone to engage the Guard Brigade, the elite of Demon's Forces. Besides, behind the two-hundred-thousand Demons and Armored Beasts, there was still the invincible Demon God King to contend with.

    His original plan was to create a series of disturbance along the borders of province of Dusa and distract the Demon's Attention, then retreat before the converging lines of the Demon Forces could cut off his escape. He was convinced that the Demon God King would never risk his own safety and attack first. Four days had passed; the fierce Guard Brigade of the Demon God King did not show up. His gamble seemed to have paid off. Stirling sighed in relief, instructing his men: "Abandon the City of Payi, prepare to retreat." But then, the Imperial Guards led by the Demon General, Yun Qian Xue appeared in the distance.

    The scouts reported to Stirling: "We have sighted the Demon Army twenty-five kilometers from our current position, around fifty-thousand men." Initially, Stirling did not pay much attention to the small Demon Army. As long as it wasn't the Demon God King himself, he was confident that he could handle a force of that size with ease. In the afternoon of January 13th, the Central Army abandoned City of Payi as planned, retreating westwards. As soon as Stirling left the city, the Demon Army began closing in on his position, posturing themselves for an attack.

    The Central Army hurriedly stopped the retreat and started forming defensive lines on the plains of Grey Waters, waiting patiently for the enemy to come to them. The sun rose slowly from the east horizon to the zenith; Stirling could see the shapes of enemy forces over the distant horizon, but no attack ever came. They just stood there! Finally, it was Stirling who gave the order to attack first. The giant steel formation of infantryman in the center marched forward, and on both flanks, cavalries walked slowly at the same speed of the infantry. Stirling did not wish to waste his precious manpower and time to fight a meaningless battle. He had hoped that a sudden show of force from the Central Army was enough to deter the Demons from attacking.

    As expected, seeing the powerful Central Army approaching, the Demons immediately retreated. However, as soon as the Central Army continued to retreat westwards, the Demons showed up again, posturing for another attack. When the Central Army attacked, the Demons ran away once more.

    The same course of events repeated over and over again. Yun Qian Xue's Army was like an annoying dog Stirling couldn't get rid of, always following him closely behind. The moment Stirling retreated, he closed in, the moment Stirling stopped, he stopped, and the moment Stirling attacked, he ran away... Like a thorn at Stirling's side, Yun Qian Xue relentlessly pursued the Central Army, all the way to the eastern bank of Grey Waters. Stirling knew exactly what was going on. This time, he had found his match. The enemy General seemed to have guessed his plan to retreat westwards. The enemy's goal was not to defeat him, but delay. Once the enemy reinforcements arrived, they would overwhelm him with superior forces. Naturally, Stirling was also aware of the plans of the enemy General. The enemy was waiting for the Central Army to cross the river. Any half-decent General knew that an army was most vulnerable when they crossed the river. Half of his army would be trapped on one side of the river and half on the other, and his soldiers knew that as well. If the enemy attacked their rear while they were trying to cross, his lines were certainly going to crumple. The only way for the Central Army to safely make it across, was to get rid of the threat first.

    Stirling ordered the bulk of his army to keep moving, while hiding in the nearby forest with the Heavy Calvary. If the enemy dared to give chase, he would hit them from both sides. Unfortunately the unusual amount of hoof prints left behind by the Heavy Cavalries gave away his plan. Instead of chasing after the Central Army, Yun Qian Xue surrounded the forest and set it alight, trapping Stirling’s Heavy Cavalry in a ring of death. Luckily, Deputy Commander Qin Lu, commanding the bulk of the army, saw the smoke. His reinforcements for Stirling arrived in time to force the Demons retreat, breaking the stranglehold of the surrounding forces.

    Stirling tried to set up more traps along the way, but every time, Yun Qian Xue avoided the ambush without fail. The unexpected turn of events infuriated Stirling greatly. It wasn’t because the enemy had better tactics or strategies; they merely exploited his need to retreat in a hurry. No matter what he did, what he tried, all Yun Qian Xue needed to do was to slow him down to effectively counter any of his manoeuvres. For the one hundred-thousand soldiers of the Central Army, time was of the essence, and the source of Stirling’s endless worries.

    Earlier today, more Demon Forces arrived. Based on the colour of their banners, it was the Rebel Army of all races. Either way, it was a sign of danger, because it meant that more and more enemy reinforcements could arrive at any moment…

    ……

    Later that night, General Yun Qian Xue of the Imperial Guards found himself kicking away the blanket as he jumped off the bed! The sudden noise outside had brought him out of his sleep.

    “A night raid!” The guard came in shouting: “Sir, we are under attack!”

    “Who?! How?!” Yun Qian Xue shouted angrily: “Was it Stirling’s army?” He couldn’t believe it; it was impossible! He had kept a close eye on the Central Army, keeping track of their every move! Not even a mosquito could escape Stirling’s camp without him knowing. There was no way Stirling could have caught him unawares!

    Yun Qian Xue dashed out of the tent. The camps of the rearguards were being consumed by a tornado of fire. Everywhere, alarms blazed, chaos broke out: “We are under attack! The rearguards are being overrun!”

    Yun Qian Xue hastily gave the order: “Prepare my horse! Fast!” But in the midst of chaos, it wasn’t exactly an easy task to find a ridable horse. In the darkness, the confused Demon Soldiers clustered around the small space between the tents, spreading the terrifying news from one to another: “The Human Army is upon us!”

    “They are here! We are surrounded!” Panic broke out everywhere. No matter how desperate the officers sounded: “Gather around me! Group up!” they couldn’t get the soldiers to organize effectively. Unable to separate friend from foe in the dark, the foot soldiers kept getting in the way of the cavalries. Noises of shouting and clattering metal had deafened the night sky. Together with a dozen of his guards, Yun Qian Xue rushed towards the source of disturbance. The only way to stop the panic from spreading was to stop it at its source.

    The first sound of fighting came from the direction of the rearguards. By now, the fire had engulfed the entire rear camp, burning away all of their military supplies and wagons. After Yun Qian Xue arrived at the scene, he hastily grabbed hold of a scared officer: “What is going on? Where is the Officer on duty? I need to see him now!”

    “Sir, he is already dead!”

    Yun Qian Xue roared: “Who did it? Was it Stirling’s army?”

    “No, Sir. It wasn’t the Central Army! The attack came from behind us! It would seem that they were Marquis Halcyon’s men!”

    Yun Qian Xue couldn’t believe his ears: “Marquis Halcyon?! He would never…” This morning, a group of the Far Eastern Rebels arrived to join forces with his army. He was delighted. He even arranged for them to make camp behind his army… Who would have known…

    Yun Qian Xue found it hard to believe. Did Marquis Halcyon really betray them? Since He and the Second Prince vouched for him, Marquis’ betrayal would not only affect the Second Prince’s standing in the court, even he might not escape the blame…

    By then, the stables had already caught on fire. In the dim light of the burning woodwork, Yun Qian Xue could faintly make out the shapes of a group Human riders as they chased after his men.

    Waking up into a nightmare, the Imperial Guards fought hard against the fierce attack of the Human Cavalry. But tried as they might, and try they did, fully armed riders versus unarmed foot soldiers, it was a slaughter.

    Yun Qian Xue took control of the situation, but only a couple hundred Demon soldiers responded to his call. Gathering all the soldiers around him, he ordered the counter attack. Despite his valiant effort, his charge was quickly repelled. He tried to regroup twice more, but was defeated both times. The enemy tore through the rearguards like an unstoppable tidal wave, crashing towards the main encampment, laying fire where ever they went.

    Yun Qian Xue had no choice but to call for the retreat. The faster they ran the more bodies they left behind. In the end, they could only rely on archers to provide cover for their retreat. A terrible defeat was seemingly inevitable.

    Fortunately for Yun Qian Xue, the vanguards of his army, put in charge of spying on Stirling, returned in time. Already fully armed and on alert, they were able to mount an organized defence. With the support of the archers, the Demons retaliated.

    The two forces collided in the dark. Their blades flashed brilliantly and constantly. Riders toppled from their horses, screaming as they hit the ground. Both sides fought like warriors trapped in the ring, trying desperately to kill their opponents. For a while, neither side came out ahead.

    Yun Qian Xue had regained his calm. It wasn't time to start worrying about his standing in the court. The most important thing right now was to defeat the enemy at hand. Blood dripped from the corner of his mouth as he bit through the lip. Embarrassment and anger were the only emotions he could feel: Marquis Halcyon, you despicable dog! How dare you betray me and shame me like that?!

    As he calmly analyzed the situation, he quickly realized. Even though the enemy managed to gain the upper hand by catching him off guard, their cavalries were not exactly the finest he had seen. In fact, they were not well trained at all in melee combat. During his retreat earlier, the enemy did not dare to give chase, which meant that they were not many to begin with. Despite the chaos of the situation, Yun Qian Xue was certain that in the end, the victory was his!

    In every direction he pointed, he shouted and cursed at the retreating Demon soldiers, forcing them to fall back in line. Soon, a decent sized group of confused soldier had gathered around him. Under his leadership, they began to organize and rejoin the battle.

    As expected from the elite of Demon's Imperial Forces, even though they were losing only a moment earlier, with a little bit of time and a little bit of encouragement, they were able to turn the tide. Slowly, the Demons were gaining the upper hand of the battle!

    ……

    In the darkness, a courier arrived with a message, “Where is the Imperial Guard Commander? I have an urgent report!”

    "I'm right here! Speak!"

    A fully armored courier ran towards him, reporting, “Marquis Halcyon has rebelled…” The message stirred a wave of uneasiness amongst the Demons.

    “Tch!” sneered Yun Qian Xue. The news didn’t come as a surprise: he already expected as much, “That treacherous bastard! I’m going to cut his head off!” he thought to himself. Then, something dawned on him: Imperial Guard Commander? Why would a lowly courier refer to him as such? Did he not know his name?!

    Leaping backwards, Yun Qian Xue instinctively pushed one of his guards in the direction of the courier running at him. Almost at the same time, a shining blade flashed like lightning before him, splitting the darkness in two. The sabre slashed through the waist of the guard as if he and his armor were mere firewood, rending him in half before his body even hit the ground. Still mid air, Yun Qian Xue had no time to think. The awkwardness of the landing made him tumble backward. He tried to push himself back up, but a strange chill over his right shoulder startled him. Immediately, a wave of heart-tearing pain flooded his senses like a powerful tsunami, causing him to shriek uncontrollably... He did not manage to avoid the deadly blade after all. His entire right arm and half of his right shoulder was gone. Blood sprayed from his wound like falling rain as he wailed and staggered in the mud.

    The horrifying shadow of the armored courier emerged from the darkness. He clearly did not expect Yun Qian Xue to be able to avoid his lethal strike, and came to finish the job. A brave guard rushed forth, blocking the path of the assassin. A blade flashed, and the head of the guard rolled from his shoulder. Kicking away the decapitated body, the assassin dashed forth. Before he could take a second step, another Demon guard grabbed his waist from behind, pulling him to a halt. From both directions, spears came thrusting, aimed at his torso. The shining sabre carved an almost perfect arc in the darkness. An invisible sword aura burst forth from his blade edge, severing Demons and spears alike. Turning to his side, the courier smashed down on the guard holding his waist with his elbow, crushing his skull to kill him instantly. With another back kick to the stomach, the Demon guard was sent flying into the air.

    Yet, that moment of delay allowed the Imperial Guards to gather before the wounded Yun Qian Xue, forming a wall of flesh and bone. Facing the “courier,” they each raised their shield and spear in anticipation. In the darkness, the deafening call echoed: “Assassin!” “Protect the General!” as rapid footsteps came towards them from all directions.

    Somewhat disappointed, and after a slight moment of hesitation, the “courier” eyed the wall of guards standing between him and Yun Qian Xue, then leapt backwards, vanishing into the darkness.

    Terrified, the guards all sighed in relief. That was one hell of an assassin! Some of the guards shouted angrily to the darkness and wanted to chase, but the officers stopped them, saying: “No one leaves! The General’s safety is our top priority!” Everything happened so fast, yet ended even faster. Still alive, the upper body of the guard who was split in two at the waist twitched wildly in the mud. His dreadful wail made everyone’s teeth chatter. In the end, his comrades were forced to give him the mercy of death.

    Another report came: “We have defeated the raiders. Do we chase after them?” Yun Qian Xue spoke as calmly as possible while fighting off the pain: “No need. Prepare our retreat.” Both he and his men suffered greatly from tonight’s attack. He could no longer follow Stirling at his current state.

    While struggling against the pain, Yun Qian Xue bandaged his wound. He had do stay awake at all cost to organize the retreat, but there was no way he could remain calm. That light, the image of that seemingly radiating blade had seared deeply into his eyes, constantly flashing before him. In the back of his mind, the same question echoed over and over again: Who? Who was that terrifying assassin? Underneath that helmet, in the instant he looked back, the moment the shock of his missing shoulder struck him, Yun Qian Xue saw the bloodthirsty eyes of the assassin burning with madness and despair, like the monster born in the deepest halls of hell.

    He shivered uncontrollably. What a frightening man! Searing through his shoulder like a hot iron rod, another wave of pain struck him. He gasped. Unable to resist it this time, he gave in to the endless darkness…

    Imperial Calendar, Year 780, January 14th, Imperial Guard Commander, the young Demon General Yun Qian Xue and his forces were attacked by unknown intruders. General Yun Qian Xue himself was gravely wounded from the battle…

    ……

    Under the cover of the darkness, another army marched on the plains of Grey Waters. In front of them, the Central Army’s base camp was lit with torches.   

    Chang Chuan asked: “Sir, you were the one shouting the loudest: Attack! Charge!”

    Luo Jie added: “But the moment fighting started, you were gone! Luckily I was too smart for your tricks, or else I would have died for sure…”

    Bai Chuan complained: “ZiChuan Xiu, you better have a damn good excuse this time! It is not the first time either. How come you are always nowhere to be found whenever things get hairy?! You are seriously beginning to get on my nerves… And what is the black stuff you are wiping on my uniform?”

    “I’m terribly sorry. You see, my stomach was acting up again. It was hurting nonstop. So I had no choice but to get away from the battle…”

    “Bullshit! Even that wouldn’t have taken two hours!”

    “Well. I have tried. But my stomach has a mind of its own…” ZiChuan Xiu spoke with a serious face: “Please believe me, I’m just like you. I have done everything I could, and made all the sacrifices necessary to ensure our victory. I really did my part!”

    “Oh yeah? What did you do?”

    “Well, I was like, you know, silently cheering you guys on from a place far away, praying for your safe return… While I pushed hard with all my stomach muscles, I prayed even harder, and finally, the Gods heard my prayer…”

    “Fuck off! Go die!”

    “Eat shit! You despicable coward!”

    Bai Chuan frowned: “Watch your manners, don’t stoop down to his level! And Sir, you haven’t answered me yet! What is that black stuff you were wiping on my uniform?”

    “That is a long story. I can tell you if you promise to not get mad at me!”

    “Hurry and speak!”

    ZiChuan Xiu cleared his throat: “It is like this. I forgot to bring any wipes with me, and there was no place to wash my hands either. So you know… do you understand? Hey! You promised to not get mad at me! How dare you break your promise! That is low even for you! I have never seen someone so shameless! Help! Someone!”

    ……

    The night of January 15th, on the eastern bank of Grey Waters, Xiu’s Company’s cavalries joined forces with the Central Army.

    The two brothers were finally reunited. For some reason, Stirling did not seem happy at all. He told him coldly the moment he saw him: “Xiu, you shouldn’t have come. I won’t be able to explain to Lady Ning!”

    “Hoho, brother, there is nothing you need to worry about! I have already got rid of that pain in the ass on your back! We can cross the river tonight!”

    “You shouldn’t have come, Xiu” Stirling repeated the same words as he took ZiChuan Xiu to the top of a nearby hill, pointing across the river: “See for yourself!”

    As far as the eyes could see, an ocean of torches burned brightly on the opposite bank of the river. Countless banners danced in the nightly gale between every hilltop. And beyond, even further into the distance, several fiery snakes were moving to join the great mass of flame over night. Even the stars paled in comparison to their numbers.

    Prince Kadun’s forces had arrived, blockading the western bank of Grey Waters, cutting off the Central Army’s and Xiu’s Company’s retreat.
  • Where is other chapter? 
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