Sorry for the late chapter. My internet went down at home and my phone couldn’t copy all the text without crashing. Left for work, came home and all is good. Technically, it’s still 920 pm on monday, so I’m not exactly late :p
Stupid weather, it’s almost July and Toronto is plaugued with thunderstorms 😦
Sitting atop his tired warhorse, Zian studied the Enemy while they moved into position. Pouring in from the south, an unwashed rabble of infantry formed loose ranks before Sanshu’s south-west gate. With each passing minute their line edged forward a step or two, predators and murderers showing their true colours for the first time. Working themselves into a frenzy, they milled about in a disorganized cluster, eager for battle and bloodshed. Dressed in dirty leathers and ragged clothes, most wielded improvised weapons made from farm tools, with pitchforks, flails, and scythes a plenty, giving off the appearance of an unruly peasant mob ready to scatter before a concentrated charge.
Appearances could be deceiving, a harsh lesson learned at the hands of Falling Rain. No mere peasant rebels, these were Defiled, every man, woman and child a traitor of the Empire. Living in the heart of the Northern Province, they were wolves hidden among sheep, biding their time and honing their skills in secret. Who knew what power lay hidden beneath their coarse exterior? Whether it be a garo-mounted tribesman savage or an unwashed peasant footman, the Defiled were not to be underestimated. Powered by the dark magics of the Father, any one was a possible Demon waiting to emerge.
In stark contrast to the peasant mob, the garo riders moved in locked formation, over a thousand riders in four, distinct squares, two on each flank. A standard hammer and anvil, the mob meant to absorb the initial charge while the garo riders swept in from both sides. Against an all-cavalry force like their own, it was a fairly standard defence. Though Zian had never faced the Defiled before, all the stories claimed they were little more than an uncontrolled horde of barbarian savages, unversed in the finer points of warfare. The formation before him argued otherwise.
“An exercise, young master.” At Zian’s side, Jukai took the tone of an instructor, gesturing at the Enemy army. “If you were in command, what orders would you give?”
These exercises were becoming a common occurrence of late, Jukai testing Zian’s knowledge in military tactics with theoretical examples, but he’d yet to offer an answer which satisfied the former Colonel. Speculating out loud, Zian bought time before answering, determined to get it right. “Though the composition of our force is far from ideal, the terrain is to our advantage. The surrounding area has been trampled flat by thousands of wagons moving in and out of Sanshu, meaning we are free to maneuver around their infantry as we please.” Zian silently pondered the situation until Jukai coughed, politely urging him along. “I would match the garo flankers with our own, keeping them occupied in battle. Then, I would send skirmishers to lure the undisciplined infantry into a charge. The skirmishers fall back and draw out the enemy line, after which we hit the scattered infantry with a concentrated charge.”
“Thereby playing directly to the Enemy’s strengths,” Jukai concluded, which set Zian’s face afire, but there was no mockery in the older man’s tone. “So defensive in duelling but so aggressive a commander, how delightful. A suitable strategy were you in command of your own army and matched against a rebel force, but you command a mishmash of elite units from various cities against a Defiled army, young master. Your tactics require a level of trust and coordination which our patchwork army lacks.”
The demand earned him a small sigh, Jukai preferring to leave Zian to come to his own conclusions, but time was short. “You know garo riders cannot be matched with even numbers of horsemen. Those armoured lizards excel at counter charging, using a powerful lunge to crash into the front lines, their scent panicking even the most well-trained mounts. As in most cavalry match ups, momentum is key, and the garos hold the advantage in this regard.”
“Yes, but the centre will crumble from our charge,” Zian interjected, defending his decision. “Which means even though we lose on the flanks, we’ll have five thousand cavalry to deal with a thousand garo riders.”
Rather than chiding him, Jukai nodded. “The Defiled don’t ‘crumble’, but you’re right. Assuming the flankers die to the last man keeping the garos in place, they’ll buy you enough time to defeat the Defiled infantry, but this brings us to the lack of trust and coordination I spoke of. You command elites from around the province, each one capable of displaying their Purity. These are people of influence or standing, their strength proven and future limitless. They’ll know you’ve set them on a suicidal task and they’ll either break after the charge or fail to engage all the garo riders and leave your skirmishers vulnerable to attack. The Enemy has their riders in separate groups for this very reason. In addition, the Defiled are a cunning foe. It’s highly possible their infantry will not take the bait and instead turn on your flankers, meaning you’ll have squandered a thousand cavalry for little gain. Were it Nian Zu and his soldiers, then he would succeed with your strategy, but you do not command the loyalty of these ‘elites’.”
Maddening. Major Yuzhen said Jukai had an ‘illustrious’ career, but none of his companions had ever heard his name and Zian’s skin wasn’t thick enough to admit he didn’t bother looking into his own subordinates. “Then how would you proceed?”
This time, Jukai refused to answer. “Consider our orders and the question I posed, and the answer will be clear.”
Eyeing the enemy lines once more, Zian quietly thought things through. How to best attack the Defiled? Wheel the entire army to one side strike from the flank? Pull back and engage them in the woods? Charge in successive waves? No matter what stratagem or tactic he came up with, the same problem continued cropping up. Cavalry was a powerful tool, but limited in use without infantry or ranged support.
Wait. Consider the question. ‘What orders would you give’, not ‘how would you attack’. His troops were tired and exhausted, facing a foe eager and ready for battle. “Delay,” he answered, earning a smile from Jukai. “If they attack, then they are forced to give up their advantage of the wall’s defences and to deal with ours. While we cannot deny the Enemy a path of retreat, it is not to our advantage to engage. Keeping this army at the gates is all we can do, but if the Defiled inside the city retreat, then we are in position to pin them inside, trapping the Enemy inside the tunnel with Sanshu’s defenders on the other side.”
“Indeed. You must also consider the grand scheme of things. Every hour which passes, brings our infantry closer and the evacuating citizens of Sanshu further from danger. Sanshu’s defenders are holding the Defiled to the south-west district, and now we’ve occupied these garo riders, a force which could wreak havoc among the evacuees or along the Xiang Mi river.” Jukai’s eyes narrowed as he stroked his chin. “Odd how they’ve been so well-behaved, though fortuitous for the farmers and fisherfolk. Many of Yo Ling’s decisions are questionable at best, but at least the damage has been minimal.” Shaking his head, Jukai shrugged and saluted. “Well then young master, off we go.”
“To delay the enemy of course.” With a smile and a wink, Jukai rode into the Enemy’s range without a care in the world. After a moment’s pause, Zian rode after him, the rest of his retinue remaining behind at Jukai’s orders. Two men riding into the teeth of the enemy, Zian made certain he kept his back straight and head held high, hiding his apprehension and keeping his eyes on the massed catapults and crossbows sitting atop the gate.
Stopping halfway between both armies, he followed Jukai’s example and dismounted, handing the reins over at the older man’s request. After a modicum of shouting and shoving, a hulking Defiled brute emerged from the Enemy lines, strolling down the road to meet him, and it finally dawned on Zian he was here to duel. Wearing a tunic spattered in dried blood, his opponent carried a two-handed woodsman axe, a single-edge, black-iron head affixed to a wooden handle. Greasy, black hair hung haphazardly about his pale, pockmarked face, an ugly bastard whose nose showed signed of multiple breaks.
“No need to wait young master, fortune favours the bold,” Jukai Sent. “Remember, we’re here to buy time so don’t make it look too easy or kill him too quickly. And no Aura unless he has one too. The Defiled have their own sort of pride regarding duels, so they won’t send someone too strong unless you give them reason to.”
Heart hammering in his chest, Zian drew his sabers and approached, warily eyeing his opponent. A glancing blow from the massive champion’s heavy axe would be enough to shatter Zian’s bones, severely limiting his options. Flourishing his sabers, Zian set out to cross blades with his first Defiled opponent in his second duel to the death, praying for a better outcome than the first. Then again, things could hardly go worse. He’d prefer death over another humiliation like the one he suffered at Rain’s hands.
Telegraphing his intent, the Defiled Champion ran forward with axe held high, chopping at Zian as if he were an immobile tree. Scoffing beneath his breath, he stepped back to avoid the blow before charging in to close the gap and deny his opponent the chance for a second strike. A naive action he immediately regretted, Zian crossed his blades to block as the Champion punched out with the butte of his axe, the wooden haft hammering home like a horse’s kick despite Zian’s efforts to Deflect the strike.
Barely able to hold onto his sabers, Zian Lightened his body and let the momentum carry him away, the wind rushing by as the axe swung through the air mere centimetres from his face. Fingers bruised, hands numb, and arms shaking, Zian kept his distance from the charging Champion, desperate to stay out of the hulking behemoth’s range. One punch, barely an afterthought to his opponent yet it was almost enough to end the fight. Too powerful, a head on clash would only end in misery.
Don’t make this too easy? At this rate, Zian would be lucky to escape with his life.
After recovering from his initial surprise, he studied his opponent’s movements, searching for a pattern to exploit. Finding it in a matter of seconds, Zian watched the axe sail by once more before slashing at the wooden handle, intent on destroying the axe. His aim true, his Honed saber cut into handle and stopped a centimetre in, rebounding off an impenetrable core. The impact shook him to the core as if he’d tried to hammer a mountain aside, his right hand coming away bloody and leaving his saber embedded in the axe’s handle.
Crooked yellow teeth on full display, the Defiled champion gave a mocking grin as he thrust Zian’s saber into the paved stone road, using nothing but pure muscle to force it down. An impressive display of strength, but Zian was more concerned with cursing himself for underestimating his opponent. The woodsman axe was more than mere iron and wood, it was a Defiled weapon of power hidden in plain sight. Not even all the garo riders had one, but this common thug wielded his axe with an expertise that spoke of years of practice. How many were just like him, skilled warriors hidden amongst the unwashed rabble, their weapons disguised as common tools?
Unable to approach and with only one saber to defend, Zian avoided swing after swing, trying to draw his opponent into overextending, but the Champion was too wily to take the bait. Holding the axe in both hands, he took measured, powerful slashes, each one causing Zian’s life to flash before his eyes. After a few more failed swings, the Champion dropped his shoulder and charged, forcing Zian to dive aside lest he be trampled underfoot or clove in twain by the following strike. Rolling to his feet, he stumbled away from the Champion, tripping over his feet to get away. Within minutes, his forehead was dripping with sweat, his lungs burning and muscles aching with effort as the Champion’s confidence swelled, his ugly grin growing wider with each attack.
Despite the dire straits, Zian gave no thought to using his Aura, instead focusing every thought on dodging his opponent. Even if he still had his Runic armour, he wouldn’t dare take a strike from his foe, the Champion’s attacks a strange mixture of unbridled fury and measured cunning. Zian was being forced away from his allies, away from his errant saber, but still he continued to dodge, desperately searching for an opportunity to strike.
How pitiful. What had become of the proud Situ Jia Zian? Once, he stood at the forefront of his peers, a talent unmatched by any until Falling Rain showed his face. Now after a single defeat, he’d transformed from rising dragon to timid mouse. Was this to be the culmination of his years of dedicated practice, to die at the hands of a nameless Defiled brute?
The anger sparked new life inside him and settled his frantic mind, the next course of action clear to him. Planting his feet, he held his saber in both hands horizontally before him, readying to block the next strike. His opponent’s eyes shone with glee as he lifted his axe up high, seeking to end the duel here and now by putting his all into this one strike. Lightening his body, Zian pushed away with his toes and slid back, avoiding the blow by gliding over paved road like smooth ice. The Champion’s axe bit into the stone, his eyes widening in shock as he struggled to pull back and defend, but it was too late. Reversing his momentum, Zian swooped forward and performed Gliding Wing, his saber scything through flesh and bone as he sailed past his opponent.
Drawing up to his full height, Zian steadied his breathing and sheathed his saber, his opponent still standing behind him. After dusting himself off and checking for bloodstains, he glanced across the Defiled lines, the battlefield silent but for the clatter of metal and wood on stone, his opponent’s axe falling to the ground. After a full nine seconds, he heard a wet thump as his opponent’s body finally dropped to the floor.
Only then did Zian turn and walk away, stepping passed the pool of blood growing around his opponent’s headless corpse. Stopping to pick up his saber, he Honed its edge and pulled it clear from the stone, wincing at the grating screech. Though he knew his saber would remain undamaged, he disliked treating it so roughly. After sheathing the weapon, Zian returned to Jukai’s side before turning to face the Defiled once more. Hands behind his back, he stood proudly before the Enemy, wordlessly daring his next opponent to come forth, using the time to Heal as best he could. Though he lacked Falling Rain’s ability, Zian’s injuries were of no importance, with only some minor tearing and bruising.
“A splendid display, young master.” Jukai’s praise arrived by Sending and Zian barely kept from puffing up. “Though I’d ask you not act so convincingly, my old heart can’t handle the stress. I almost ran in to save you after you ‘tripped’, a damn fine show.”
Coughing, Zian reminded himself not to grow arrogant. Fame and glory were unimportant, personal strength all that mattered. It’s why he intended to step away from Clan and Society, no longer wanting to be distracted by meaningless squabbles over wealth and political power. His goal was to reach the apex of the Martial Path, and after struggling against this nameless Defiled brute, he still had a long way to go.
Zian’s next opponent stepped out, a svelte, graceful young man, lips twisted in a mocking sneer as he sauntered forward with twin sickles in hand. Thanking the Mother it wasn’t another hulking behemoth, Zian drew his sabers to meet his opponent. This was the perfect opportunity to train. Falling Rain won four duels in succession, so obviously, Zian needed to win at least five.
No, these were nameless Defiled while Rain defeated three top Society talents and an expensive slave. Better to win at least nine times or ten times.
Much as Fung disliked the arrogant fop, he couldn’t help but admire Zian’s tenacity and martial prowess. Six duels fought in succession, the first few against Defiled villagers, but the last two against garo mounted barbarians. Each duel ended in a close match, yet still Zian stood tall, waiting for his seventh opponent. Despite several near brushes with death, Fung knew Zian was holding back, only displaying a few Chi skills and Forms, his Aura still yet to be used. Brimming with envy, Fung dreamed of a time when he would be confident enough to fight the Defiled with a self-imposed handicap, pretending to struggle in order to buy time for the army to rest. Worst of all, Zian remained silent through it all, not bothering to name himself or even gloat a little, with zero displays of satisfaction after each hard-fought victory.
For some months now, Fung heard the whispers comparing him to Zian, implying how he followed in the others footsteps. Both talented youths born in a Magistrate’s family, both notorious womanizers and drunks, and both victors in the Contest, they should have risen to equal fame, but far from it. In fact, many questioned why Tong Da Fung seem so lacking in comparison, despite walking down a similar path.
Fung detested his fellow young magistrate for more than this. Losing to Zian in front of Du Min Gyu would have been acceptable except the bastard had the gall to slap Fung across the face with the flat of his blade, a humiliating slight. Watching Rain defeat the arrogant prick brought him a measure of peace, but Fung still dreamed of one day challenging Zian to a duel and perhaps even returning the slap with one of his own.
After watching six duels and the start of a seventh with yet another northern savage, Fung worried the day would never come.
“This is boring.” Cheeks puffed and arms crossed, the adorable Mei Lin sat atop her quin, watching the duel with a frown. “I thought we were going to fight, ya? When are we going into the city?”
Keeping his voice down, Fung explained, “Zian is buying time, giving our soldiers and horses time to rest after riding all day.”
Comprehension dawned on her face as Lin smiled sheepishly, knocking herself lightly on the head. “Ah. Okay. Sorry.” Sighing loudly, she went back to waiting in silence for all of a single minute, before she asked, “When is it your turn to fight?”
Mei Lin was a perfect match for Rain, the two wholly unconcerned about face. There was nothing malicious about it, it’s merely who they were. Smiling, Fung merely shook his head. He didn’t dare follow-up after Zian. Who knew what sort of monster the Enemy would send out? Ignoring Rustram’s wordless plea to send her away to safety, Fung returned to watching Zian’s duels. Though the sweet girl’s demeanour often kindled a desire to protect her, he knew Mei Lin needed no protection from him.
Instead, he devoted all his efforts to finding a weakness in his ‘rival’, but to no avail. The only thing he noticed was Zian’s tendency to give up the initiative to fight defensively, studying his opponents in-depth before going for the kill. Not much of a weakness, Zian’s defences were top-notch, able to dodge, parry, or Deflect all but the most powerful of blows. How Rain defeated him was still a mystery to Fung, even though he witnessed the match with his own eyes.
After a long struggle, the seventh duel came to an end, Zian winning with a clean killing blow like always. The arrogant bastard wasn’t even dirty, barely sparing a glance for his fallen foe before returning to stand next to his second. How long did he intend to continue? Almost thirty minutes had passed now, a single man standing before the Defiled army, boldly defying them time and time again. Though it pained him to see Zian earn more fame and glory, these thirty, hard-won minutes were crucial, allowing the Imperial Army to continue setting their defences and resting their mounts. Minutes ticked by in silence without an eighth challenger, and Zian merely stood and waited, unperturbed by the numerous catapults and crossbows pointed in his directions. If only the bastard weren’t such an unbearable prick, he would’ve made a splendid friend. With Huu and Rain both betrothed to wonderful women, Fung found himself lacking someone to drink and whore with.
A low, rumbling horn sounded out in the silence, a haunting note the Defiled used to signal battle, their commander unwilling to send another duellist to their death. As Zian rode back to his retinue, the Imperial Army cheered his return, his successive victories raising morale to its peak. Unable to stew in his envy, Fung readied himself for the battle. Though Zian’s accomplishments were impressive, his twin sabers were unsuited for massed warfare and his strength was spent. This was Fung’s chance to display his skills with the spear, the king of all weapons.
“We’re fighting now, ya?” Mei Lin asked, her eyes bright and eager. Nodding in reply, he was treated to a brilliant, toothy smile as she leaped to her feet, standing atop her quin with grace and aplomb. With bow in hand, she glanced at Fung for permission before picking a target, using her entire body to draw her bow and loose the arrow in one smooth motion. Without pausing to view her handiwork, she continued firing into the Enemy from well outside the range of their catapults, a consummate display of Bekhai archery. In less than a minute, Mei Lin’s kill count numbered in the double digits, forcing Fung to rethink his evaluation of weapons.
Perhaps he should ask Rain to teach him how to shoot. This seemed much more efficient than fighting successive duels.
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