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Standing stoically atop the battlements, Colonel General Nian Zu studied the Enemy deployment, noting the strengths and weaknesses of their deployment and searching for hidden traps or unseen hazards. Millions of Defiled strong, the enemy horde larger than any in recorded history, growing by the day as if every Defiled warrior in existence were congregating north of the Bridge. Even the best of times in the Northern Province were dismal and muted, but after 80 years as a soldier and 40 of those here at the Bridge, it thrilled him to find an opponent worth fighting.
They had yet to meet directly, but after months of battle, Nian Zu spotted the signs, his adversary’s hand guiding the battles from behind his veil, unseen and unheard, but not unnoticed. For so many Defiled to gather with minimal discord would have been inconceivable only a few years ago, but somehow, this adversary held control over the masses, even directing the Demons to bring down the Wall, a daunting foe. His blood boiled in anticipation of another match, his mind composing and discarding plan after plan, preparing for their approaching clash of wills.
His cavalry sallied forth from the western gate, moving into formation while the Defiled looked on with jeers, every last mounted soldier under his command soon to be waiting on the plains. Should his plan fail, the coming months would be dark indeed, as without the cavalry to threaten their flank, the Enemy would have free rein to crash against the walls without contest, the Demons boring through the solid material of the walls with their corrosive fluids. A small comfort that the process consumed the Demon’s physical body, but good news was in short supply these days. His infantry stood by the central and eastern gates, on alert and ready to support should the worst come to pass, but he was confident in his choice of field commanders for this foray, a man who had proven himself time and time again.
The reinforcements had bought a reprieve, but that fool Yang had disregarded his request for heavy cavalry, instead bringing infantry in massed droves, believing this a stagnant siege, man against man. Should the walls collapse, the infantry would be fodder, only able to slow the Enemy’s advance with their corpses as the Garo riders and Demons swept through them. Most were not even trained with the bow, a skill requiring a lifetime to learn and a prerequisite for service at the Bridge. What use did a common foot soldier have but to obstruct the officers charged with fighting Demons that ascended the Wall? 500,000 infantry, each one a useless mouth to feed, and a mere 10,000 heavy cavalry, a pittance.
He was left little choice but to send the infantry east to retake the mountain passes, a less than ideal decision. Better for the foreigners to hold the wall, freeing the locals to traverse the treacherous forests and mountains. Damned politics had mucked everything up, a worthless feud over face and greed putting the entire Northern Province at risk. The Bekhai commander had fulfilled her duties admirably, retaking the Flying Tiger Fortress in days as opposed to weeks, and if not for the Society assassins flitting about, he would have sent the Bekhai to retake the other border fortresses, their roosequin’s giving them unmatched superiority in the mountains. Instead, his hands had been tied, forced to ask DuYi to request for their presence in the west, wasting their effectiveness on chasing scattered Defiled.
His repeated appeals to the Society had fallen upon deaf ears, the trivial quarrel infuriating him to no end. He cared little for the games of children or the greed of bureaucrats; the Bekhai raised good warriors who served the Empire and all else was irrelevant in his eyes. One’s birth status meant less than dog shit to him, Half-Beast or Human, as long as they willingly fought for the Empire, he would use them to their utmost effectiveness. If a damn horse from the stables showed an ability to lead troops adequately, then Nian Zu would personally inscribe and hand over its token of authority. Unfortunately, this massive horde of Defiled consumed all his time and efforts, rendering him unable to protect the Bekhai, only able to help with small matters like providing a smithy for them to use. He held little doubt the fierce warriors would fall before the Society, but it would not be as simple as most believed, victory at great cost to the benefit of none.
Ignoring yet another Sending from some fop who wished to ‘join the fray and seek glory’, he grit his teeth in frustration and ordered a message Sent to every officer not involved. “The next one of you idiots to interrupt my thoughts with a sending will be dispatched to fight the Defiled. By catapult.” His greatest hurdle, the lack of effective leaders, he found the new crop of central officers sorely lacking in field expertise and basic army decorum, a result of emphasis on dueling records when handing out promotions. Sheer idiocy to let warriors duel to the death, a waste of warriors Nian Zu could better utilize. Let the fops have their matches and force the loser to be oath-sworn and sent to serve in the army, a much more efficient way to go about things, but a quick death held more romance. Instead, it gave rise to armchair generals like Yang and his toadies, a worthless bunch who needed hand-holding lest they make a mess of whatever small task he assigned them.
As if summoned by the thought of his name, Situ Jia Yang appeared with his honour guard, the uppity Centrist hiding his anger well, calmly striding along the wall as if out to see the sights. “Colonel General.” The words oozed out of Yang’s mouth, his tone condescending as he looked out over the cavalry. “It seems your deployment is taking longer than expected, but some fortune can be gleaned from this. You still have time to reconsider, my troops and officers would make a fine addition to this foray. Let it not be said that Jia Yang is content to cower behind the wall while foolish old men lead the young to their deaths.”
Resisting the urge to cut the arrogant fool down where he stood, Nian Zu took his time in answering, curbing his anger before speaking, unable to afford further antagonizing the man. Especially not with several Justicars within earshot, here by his own invitation. “My decision is firm. This large-scale battle will require coordination on a grand scale, and I have no confidence in your officers’ abilities to obey without question. Adhere to my terms or remain here, I care little either way.” Best if Yang submitted, but success was not contingent upon his cooperation, only giving him an added layer of protection from defeat.
“Hmph, belittle my officers by taking orders from a nameless, low-ranked soldier in the field? It’s absurd and were your surname anything but ‘Situ’, I would have you brought up on charges of dereliction of duty. One would believe you’ve forgotten that part of your name, along with all the gratitude for those who elevated you to your lofty position.”
Around him, his loyal soldiers bristled at the accusation, and Nian Zu quickly defused the situation before a brawl erupted. Say what you will about Jia Yang, the man was fearless, insulting him while surrounded by his soldiers, each one willing to die to avenge his honour. “My position is a result of my hard work and skill at arms. Insult me again, and I will be happy to prove the latter for you, although the cost will be high.”
They locked gazes, taking measure of one another, Yang’s aura washing over him without resistance, Nian Zu disinclined to bother countering. Battle was nearly upon him and he would not waste a single effort here, not against this fool. Snorting, Yang seemed to think himself victorious, declaring loudly, “I will not send my soldiers out to be slaughtered in an old man’s foolish pursuit of glory. My objections to this excursion are documented and entered into record. The deaths of these soldiers will not be in vain, as it will become clear you are no longer worthy of command, a senile old fool who is past his time, spiteful to the end.” Arrogant and smug, Yang’s smile dissipated once it became clear Nian Zu was ignoring him, making sounds of outrage until he finally stomped off in a fuss. A shame, it would have been amusing to watch his self-satisfied grin slip away. Scolding himself, he reminded himself the battle was not yet won, and there stood a fine line between confidence and hubris.
Focusing once again on the task at hand, he considered his options. If not for the Society’s influence, he would have Yang arrested and censured, seizing his troops away from him. A foolish thought, as doing so would result in bitter infighting, an outcome he could ill afford at this juncture. Winning the man over was impossible, the pompous ass too self-important to realize the greater good. Discarding all thoughts of what could be, he turned his attentions to the troops he had at hand, offering scant words of counsel on the formation, trusting in his chosen officers, preparing contingencies for every possibility. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst, words he had lived by for 40-odd years at the Bridge.
The Enemy was not idle, arranging and rearranging their battle lines as they waited, Demons appearing to draw attention while others skulked in the shadows, hiding themselves among the Defiled. The monstrous beasts surged to the forefront, a sacrifice to terrorize his mounts and wear down his warriors, all within expectations, with a line of skirmishers emerging, ready to clear the way for the heavy cavalry. The morning wore on until he received word all was in place, and he briefly hesitated, a moment of doubt whether this was the best decision. Only a moment, unnoticed by all, and he barked the order, infusing the word with his chi for all to hear. “Charge!”
A resounding cry echoed from the plains ahead, quickly drowned out by the thundering of hooves and the day’s battle commenced, massive rocks flung overhead, plummeting towards the counter charging Defiled, his horse archers sending a hail of arrows to follow. A short prayer left his lips, muttered beneath his breath. “Mother, watch over your children and see them safe, whether to return to their homes or content within your embrace.” Victory or defeat, the day’s toll would be bloody, but such was life, an eternal struggle.
For over ten-thousand years these walls have stood, and so long as Nian Zu drew breath, they would continue to stand, holding back this horde of Defiled. Smiling at the thought, he concentrated his attentions on the battle, playing his deadly game of chess with his unseen and formidable opponent.
Settled into his armchair, Yang sat quietly in the tower overlooking the battlefield below. Four hours since the initial charge, and still the battle raged on, his unease growing by the minute. It had been a calculated risk to publicly speak out against Nian Zu, but it had seemed the prudent tactic at the time. Why go out and meet the Defiled in open combat, conceding their advantage of the walls? Clear the area around each gate and hold the walls with infantry and siege weapons, a standard defense. Even if the Defiled outnumbered them 3 to 1, they would pay dearly to even reach the walls, not to mention the long climb up. Without wood, the Enemy had scant few ladders, relying largely on leather ropes and grappling hooks to ascend the wall, a laughable concept.
Instead, that glory seeking fool sent men out to die in droves in what should have been a suicidal charge. Contrary to his expectations, they still survived, charging and retreating with pinpoint precision, horse archers constantly raining arrows down upon the Enemy while the cavalry ran roughshod around the Defiled, using the open space to their advantage. Never fully engaged with the Enemy, Nian Zu’s soldiers constantly moved about while wall-mounted catapults launched an endless number of stones, many seeming dangerously close to allied units, but he had yet to see a single instance of friendly fire.
The degree of organization on display was astounding, something he would have thought impossible were it described to him. No wonder the old fart had insisted on his own officers, the slightest hesitation would throw everything into disarray, bringing death to all involved. A single droplet of sweat made its way down the back of his neck as he continued to watch, feeling like a child once again, in awe of Nian Zu’s prowess, but it changed nothing. The entire farce was a waste of lives, a peacock strutting about, unaware of the tiger lurking in the brush.
Sighing deeply, he turned away from the battle to watch over his nephew, sparring with his guards in a harsh match of endurance. A dozen guards ringed him, Zian sparring with one at a time, the guards taking turns beating him and giving him no time to rest. Determination was what he lacked, coddled too much by his mother, and this hellish training was just what he needed. Yang had to thank Du Min Gyu, as if not for the match against his student, Zian would have quit long ago, obsessed with proving the decrepit hero wrong.
A light knock on his door followed by a Sending, and he quickly sent the boy away before his mother saw his current state, bloodied and bruised. Despite holding the rank of Lieutenant General, Yang was not yet brave enough to upset his older sister, helpless before her anger and fearful of her vicious nature. Striding in, she glanced around for her son and raised her eyebrow in question.
“He is bathing, it would not be proper for him to meet his mother covered in sweat.” Or blood and bruises, but the healers would deal with his injuries. “I presume you’ve some other reason for your visit?”
Narrowing her eyes, Ying studied him while he did his best to seem indifferent, praying she would not see the bloodstains on his guard’s sleeves and shirts. She stepped forward to the window to look out over the battle, and Yang held in a sigh of relief. “What are we to do about this?” She spoke without turning, but he knew her thoughts, lamenting their clan’s estrangement from this dragon among men.
Pouring two glasses of rice wine, he joined her at the window. “Ai, I know not whether to laugh or cry. I underestimated his four decades of experience here and must pay the price.” Clinking his cup against hers, he drained it in a single gulp. “No matter, I will take full responsibility, likely a few dozen lashes for insubordination, he will not dare to demand my death. His mind is as sharp as ever, but age has diminished his skills in combat, else he would not be standing there on the walls, hiding behind the Justicars to keep me from taking his head.” Respect for his ability to command aside, he still believed this foray to be an unnecessary risk, Nian Zu feeling threatened and displaying his skills.
His sister drank with him, making a small sound of frustration. “If only he had not rebuffed the Society, this glory would be ours to share. The soldiers call him the Hero of the Wall, Nian Zu, ignoring his family name. If only…”
The rest of the sentence went unsaid, and Yang kept silent, knowing she wondered of a world in which she married Nian Zu, keeping him tied to Clan and Society, the dream of a foolish young maiden, nothing more. After an appropriate pause, he spoke once more. “A pity he has no child to carry on his legacy. Perhaps we should send Zian and other promising youths to serve with him, he might take one under his wing. It is base instinct to look after one’s blood, a noble calling.” Doing so would also free Yang from his duties to teach his nephew, watching the young man beaten and bruised more difficult than expected. He held his tongue on his other thoughts, to send her to his side as well, still a beautiful woman and a widow.
Silence was his only answer but he could tell from the set of her jaw she was considering it. Knowing not to push the matter, he waited patiently, studying the battlefield as it unfolded, a synchronized dance which defied common logic, marionettes directed by Nian Zu’s will.
Placing her cup back into his hands, Ying remarked, “My opposite number in Shen Huo has acted, sending a paltry 5,000 troops led by Man Giao, a half-beast of mediocre repute. Like I told you, Hai lacks the resources to aid the Bekhai after the attack on Shen Huo. If he makes a personal appearance, we can have him killed along with his son and take Shen Huo for ourselves. You are sure that Du Min Gyu is also a non-factor? If you are wrong, the number of allies he can call upon is not small.”
Filling the cups, he snorted loudly, still angered by the deception. “I saw his feeble shaking with my own eyes, and his panic at having been exposed. He is a relic past his prime, and should he choose to interfere, I will put his weakness on display for the world to see.” A grand title that would be, the killer of Du Min Gyu, his reputation made all the greater. “I’ve also looked into the other Bekhai, a formidable bunch, but we will manage. Gerel, the most fearsome one, is missing an arm, and none of the others are unhurt, not after months of arduous combat.” He had already begun to plot the match-ups, hoping to send his more troublesome peers to their deaths against the Bekhai, earning him twice the results for half the effort.
The battle continued to rage below him when he received a Sending from Bolin, and he turned to his sister for advice. “A representative from a merchant group is requesting a meeting, the Canston Trading Group. The name is familiar, but I cannot place it.”
“Ai, your memory is already beginning to fade, little brother you have aged before your time.” A sly smirk and a dangerous glint in her eyes warned him not to speak about her age. “A group based out of Yantai, the intermediaries who placed the bounty on the Bekhai youngsters during the contests.”
Seeing no reason not to at least hear them out, he instructed Bolin to keep the merchant waiting, continuing to act as a spectator in this glorious battle. The Defiled seemed out of options, moving as one to encircle the cavalry, sustaining heavy losses from the archers and catapults, whilst the soldiers began to retreat in full force, the gates opening at the last moment as they streamed through to safety. The gates slammed down with a thud, heard from his lofty perch, and the few Defiled who made it through were killed without difficulty, those outside the walls harvesting the dead for their cooking pots.
Seeing the cleanup taking place below, he instructed Bolin to bring the merchant in while he pretended to work, to keep the merchant waiting and letting him sweat. The merchant was not alone, several sets of heavy boots following him in, the march of disciplined warriors, Yang sensing his guards tense up as they readied to defend him at any sign of betrayal. Bolin had yet to earn their trust, but Yang held no such concerns, his old friend too simple and straightforward. Any betrayal would be easily seen in advance.
Shuffling his papers to one side, he glanced up and affixed his gaze on the merchant, a rotund man dressed garishly in a mimicry of nobility, but it sat poorly on his frame, his sweat stink ruining the effect. “What is your purpose here?”
Bowing neatly if not gracefully, the merchant launched into his flowery introduction. “This humble servant is called Chuwon, here on behalf of the Canston Trading Group. It is this one’s greatest honour to meet you, Hero of the Central Plains.” Seeing him unimpressed, Chuwon hurriedly continued. “Relations between our trading group and the Society of Heaven and Earth have soured somewhat, a mishap due to an overeager employee. In an effort to make amends, and hearing of your upcoming trials, I come bearing gifts.”
With a flourish, he presented his slaves, large, hulking half-beasts, each one well-armed with a great sword or sabre and fully armored in heavy plate, their eyes full of determination and anger. “A dozen bristleboar slaves of varying ages, four in each group according to the trials, should you need them. While the Society no doubt holds vast reserves of skilled warriors, these slaves make excellent fodder, each one armed with a Spiritual Weapon and the best armor money can buy. No matter how skilled the opponent, this humble servant guarantees they will not be easily defeated, trading their lives at great cost.”
Bowing once again, Chuwon presented a badge of gold and jade held out in both hands. Gesturing for Bolin to bring it over, he studied the merchant while thinking things over. “And what do you expect in return?” A costly gift indeed, just the weapons alone would have beggared most.
“It is a gift, Great Hero, this humble servant dare not make demands, he only hopes to speak on issues of trade and mutual benefit, and perhaps a lessening on restrictions due to our … misunderstanding.”
Glancing over to his sister, she nodded slightly, and he left it to her judgment. She was better suited for this bureaucratic nonsense, Yang lacked patience for those sorts of nonesense. Leaving the two of them to discuss the particulars, he inspected his new slaves closely, picking one at random. “Name and age?”
Not the most imaginative of naming schemes, but it mattered little, Yang had no interest in remembering them. Pairing them up against his guards, he sat and watched as they sparred, smiling to himself at the unexpected boon. A bear for strength, a cat for speed, a wolf for ferocity, but none could compare in resilience to a bristleboar. Their level of skill was adequate, but with their natural durability and fatalistic mindset, even Zian would be unable to defeat one of the younger slaves without injury.
Like meat pies falling from the sky, these new gifts could be put to good use. At the very least, one or two could be sent to challenge the unknowns, wearing down their chosen champions and giving Yang an opportunity to study his opponents. Pouring himself another cup of wine, he sipped leisurely as he watched, smiling at his newfound fortune.
Let Du Min Gyu, Tong Da Hai, Nian Zu, and Akanai struggle for all their worth, in the end, he would stand victorious, the beginning of his own epic, his dreams finally come true. Situ Jia Yang, Hero of the North, only a step away from Patriarch of the Situ Clan. With a bit of luck and effort, perhaps he could even seize a new title, one given to none before him.
Situ Jia Yang, Dragon Master of the Society.
The specific title could use work, but that could wait.
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