Marshal Shing DuYi sat within his carriage, his body too old for the rigors of travel. He needed to name a successor soon, but all the fops and dandies sent to him by the nobles of the Northern Province were pitiful indeed. Strength of arms did not mean strength of mind, it took a certain attitude and an almost masochistic nature in order to handle the stresses of his job, to appease and command in the same breath. Unable to find a suitable candidate, he continued to work even at the ripe age of 96, toiling away until he found a successor that would satisfy both his and the Emperor's requirements.
“More tea, Marshal?” His loyal attendant and bodyguard Yuzhen, always at his side. Blonde haired and lovely as a flower, the girl had never found someone to marry, a shame, a shame.
“Of course, dear heart, of course.” Taking the proffered cup, he drank deeply, the bitter herbs well masked with honey. “Ah, little miss, you make the best tea in the world. It is why I keep you around, you know.”
“Old flatterer, drink your tea in quiet. It will win you no favors, nor will it spare you from your medication.” The little fox girl was relentless, always brewing medication for him. A persistent cough he had, and she was determined to fix it despite the best healers being unable to do anything for him. Fluid in the lungs, and no matter how many times they drained it, it would always return, sometimes even worse than before.
Patting her on the head, he remembered a time when she had been just a tiny waif, hungry and cold, with dead eyes. “Ahh, who knew that little orphan I took in would become such a tyrant, I should have left you behind in the forest, spared myself this torture.” That had been thirty years ago, and it had been his most cherished achievement of his lifetime. Little else mattered in the face of raising a child, not his accolades, his titles, his wealth. Were it not for Imperial law, he would have named Yuzhen his successor a decade ago. Sharp of wit and strength of arms, she appeared unrivaled in his eyes, failing and biased as they were. A dated policy, to only have humans in positions of power, but no one wished to hear him speak of it.
“A pity. Now you must reap what you sow, old man.” Smiling as she laid out a small snack for him, she settled back into her seat, watching their surroundings through the window. Ever vigilant, this little adoptive child of his, always looking to keep him safe, and yet he still could not share with her his family name. Despite all his power as Marshal, he could not stand alone without the Society, and the Shing clan was ever at odds with their fellows within the Society. A good idea in theory, to have so many groups cooperate as one, and were it not for the constant politicking and backstabbing, the Society would be an even greater power of the Empire. A shame indeed.
Their journey soon came to an end, his guards announcing their arrival. A magnificent work of architecture, he always swelled with pride when he saw the Wall, a testament to the strength of the Empire. It had stood for as long as written history was recorded, the secrets to its origins lost to the sands of time, the Empire no longer able to recreate the sturdy, smooth, durable material that made up the wall. Rather than brick by brick, the wall seemed made of a single, enormous stone, perhaps hewn and hollowed from the mountain where they now stood. A true wonder of the old world, impregnable since it's creation.
Supported by Yuzhen, he made his way to the lift with the rest of his guards and waited patiently as the soldiers pulled him up slowly, through a complex set of winches and pulleys that he had devised. His knees were heavy with fluid and unsuitable for climbing the near endless flights of stairs, and his constant tours at the walls had motivated him greatly to have these installed in every fortress.
Stepping out onto the battlements, he marveled at the sight of the crenelations, and the spectacular views they allowed him. It was all marred by the sights and sounds of battle of course, the reports unable to truly paint just how many Defiled were present. Even with near constant fighting, the Enemy continued to grow in number, the horde now close to two and a half million strong, the matter of supplies irrelevant as they feasted upon the dead. The Bridge normally held a standing contingent of 350,000 soldiers, and currently had almost 3 times that, with 980,000 soldiers defending its walls, and still the requests for more reinforcements continued. What was it like at the other Bridges? The reports arrived daily, but they contained old news, the travel time between bridges almost an entire month. The latest reports spoke of the walls holding, but how long would they continue to hold?
DuYi had decided to make his base of operations here, summoning the rest of his lieutenant marshals for a meeting. Only then would they stop stalling and bring troops to the front lines. He estimated at least 500,000 more troops en route, arriving before the end of the seventh month, his underlings too afraid to travel without their troops. The Empire was at war, not only the Northern Province, and many of his peers seemed to forget that simple fact. Three fronts under constant pressure, with Martial Law declared in the three provinces. The Central province was deploying troops to each front, but it would be weeks, if not months, before they arrived. Until then it was up to the warriors of the North to hold strong, but instead, his subordinates complained of costs and reimbursement, fluctuating markets and interruption of production. Short-sighted fools, all of them, unable to see that none of that would matter should the province fall. Even losing Shen Mu, with its glorious grove of sacred trees, was not enough to shake the fools from their stupor.
He shivered from the cold as his attendants set up a partition from the wind, allowing him to watch without succumbing to his failing health. Were he to collapse in public, many would use that as an excuse to force him to step down as Marshal of the North, and the title would likely be given to some fool, like Situ Jia Ying or Lin Xiang Gu. The former was too self involved, the latter too much of a politician, both a disaster in the making. The position required objective decision-making for the good of the Empire, and those with the required outlook seemed fewer each year. What ever happened to civic pride and righteous heroes? When he was young, the streets had been filled with such people, all willing to fight and die for the Empire, but now, greed and self-service was the norm. Perhaps it was always this way, and it was the rose-colored glasses of youth obscuring his vision.
He studied the layout of the battle before him, shaking his head in worry. “There can be no mistaking it. The Enemy has some method of long distance communication. That is the only reasonable explanation why they continue to press the attack at the Bridge.” He stroked his beard as he watched with a mix of wonder and melancholy, speaking aloud to himself, a habit learned in old age. The war raged about him, Defiled died in droves as the soldiers of the Empire fought them back, exhaustion evident on every face. Little surprise there, the attacks had been going on for near two months without interruption, the Defiled near fanatical in their rush towards death.
“Why do you say that, you old paranoid bastard?” Colonel General Situ Nian Zu, Commander at the Bridge, greeted him with his customary aplomb. Resplendent in his golden armor, his black cloak flowing behind him would be embroidered with the Situ crest, despite the man's disdain for Society politics. Appearances needed to be kept, after all.
Hugging his old friend, DuYi smiled at the provocation. “Ah you old pretentious fart, look before you and see. Has age robbed you of your wits? The Defiled are not the mindless savages of tales, but individuals, each with their own dreams and aspirations. They charge at the wall time and time again, yet the result is always the same. Soldiers die, Defiled die, and the Wall still stands. Why continue to do so, with no hope of victory?”
“Why, pray tell, does any of this mean they have a means of long-range communication? They are barely more human than apes, savages and nothing more. Might as well claim that tigers have learned to forge tools.” Nian Zu was much like himself, an outsider from Clan and Society. A career soldier, the man had dedicated himself to defending the wall for the past 40 years, but his constant battles had forged the man into unbreakable steel, still fit and spry, unlike himself.
“They attack as a distraction, so that we must continue to bring our forces here, rather than hunt down the Defiled already within our borders.” He motioned for Yuzhen to bring forth the reports. “See here, the ones within our borders ravage the lands, trying to seem uncoordinated and wild, but there is a pattern to them. They only move within a set distance, never straying too far from the borders, and never more than once into any prohibited areas. All the while, they build up in numbers within our borders, until they have enough strength to take another city, or even threaten the Wall from behind.”
Waiting as Nian Zu perused the reports, knowing his friend was a suspicious soul, needing to read the reports for himself, DuYi watched the battle unfold before him, shaking his head at the monumental waste of life. The Defiled charged time and time again, a buffer for their Demon commanders, blocking the way with their flesh and bones so that the Demons could reach the gates. Below him, officers would be standing ready to throw back the Demons, while their soldiers stood at their sides, giving their lives so that their heroes may fight uninterrupted. Killing was simple, but surviving was the difficult part.
It was strange that Heavenly energy had so many ways to turn a human into a weapon, but so few to defend. Perhaps it had to do with the nature of man, always ready to make war, whether it be upon beast, Defiled, or their fellow man. If it were not for the Defiled threat, it was almost certain the Empire would not stand united. It was in their nature to fight, to thrive on conflict, the mighty taking while the weak struggled to live. It could easily be seen in the Central and Eastern provinces, with no real threat from the exterior, they turned to civil unrest and infighting, rebels against the Empire.
“Perhaps you are correct. Their movements do seem … suspicious, but it matters little. Send an army to retake the mountain passes, and the day is won. Their conversations will not save them from the spears of the Empire.” A simple man, who preferred direct methods, he cared little for matters other than war.
“Yes, yes, of course, armies are being raised at Shen Yun and Feng Huang as we speak. The subjugation force is pushing the Defiled back, and everything will be concluded within the month. As for your next complaint, there are reinforcements on the way, the closest large group should be arriving within the week.” Always a simplistic man, never seeing beyond the next battle, failing to recognize how useful a tool for communication would be in their hands, or the disaster that a united horde of Defiled presented. “In fact, the Flying Tiger Fortress has already been retaken. We intercepted their messenger on the way here, and it holds some disturbing insights.” He handed the reports to Nian Zu, who once again studied them slowly, his brow furrowed as he read.
DuYi's focus turned back to the battle before him, watching the Imperial Cavalry charge across the plains, throwing back the Defiled soldiers, killing ten's of thousands as they thundered forward. Before his eyes, small pockets of resistance formed here and there, the Defiled rallying about their Demons and Champions, all quickly felled by coordinated officers and Exarchs, interspersed among the troops. Whoever had set up the formation was clever, with a good grasp of command. Perhaps it was Major General Han Bohai, or Major General Teng Wei Sheng, both adherents of the Society, but still splendid warriors and commanders. If only they were less political, and more devoted to the Empire.
The charge continued before his eyes, and his eyes squinted in worry as he shivered from the cold. Yuzhen messaged him quietly, keeping up appearances. “We should go inside Marshal, the chill is no good on your old bones.” He ignored her willfully, stubbornly watching the battle before him. Weakness could not be shown, and the battle was becoming more interesting. The cavalry charge was dangerously close to overextending itself and being caught in the open once their momentum had been spent. Nian Zu seemed unconcerned, but the man lived and breathed tactics, there was no way he did not see the danger before them.
“Hmm, this is far more disturbing than your musings of communications. This speaks of the same destruction we saw at Shen Mu, the walls crumbled to dust without flame or impact. It screams of a powerful Demon, but if it came through the passes at the Flying Tiger Fortress, why would it make the journey to Shen Mu, and not the much closer Shen Huo?”
DuYi shrugged, eyes unable to blink as he watched the battle unfold. The Defiled were moving into position, splitting off in several groups, the cavalry soon to be encircled, their doom only breaths away. He lamented the loss of so many soldiers, the defense made all the more difficult by their loss. Nian Zu joined him, standing stoic beside him, quiet and disciplined despite the anger he must have felt, watching his soldiers ride towards their doom. The days ahead would be difficult, with low morale and fewer defenders, and DuYi made preparations to send messengers to hurry along the reinforcements.
Suddenly before his eyes, the cavalry formation underwent a massive change, pivoting with precision towards the Defiled that meant to cut off their retreat, renewing their charge in the blink of an eye, their flagging strength a ruse that both the Enemy and DuYi had fallen for. The warriors of the Empire slaughtered their way out of what should have been a death trap, striking while their opponents were still in transition, charging towards the Central gates, which opened for them as they approached, allowing the cavalry to enter safely. DuYi turned to Nian Zu, eyes wide in disbelief, who smiled at him.
After a moments thought, DuYi cleared his throat and spoke. “With the amount of training and precision required for such a maneuver, you seem to have nurtured some hidden talents.” For that tactic to succeed it would have required near fanatical trust in the commander's judgment, and there were no soldiers that DuYi was familiar with capable of inspiring such devotion.
His old friend smiled enigmatically at him. “I'm glad that you were here to witness this. The Empire will rise to further glory in the near future, without a doubt, but there is also a personal matter I wish for your aid with.” Rare for Nian Zu to ask for his aid. “It is about some youngsters that have insulted the Society. They have ties to a mercenary under my command, a Baatar of the Bekhai.”
Sighing deeply, he prepared himself for the worst. He deeply regretted having sent an invitation to the Bekhai, but hearing of a 16-year-old boy crossing swords with a Warrant Officer was simply too splendid to ignore. He had intended to protect the youngsters, grant one a military ranking, but he had not expected for their luck to be so bittersweet, forcing the Bekhai out of the contest too early for him to justify such a reward.
The Bekhai had shown their ferocity though, even with children and civilians they had managed to survive, and now, even in the midst of war, the Society demanded retribution. Family was family, and blood could not be ignored, no matter how much he wished to. He cursed the fools at home and their desperate need to regain face. He could already guess what would be asked, and knew it would not bode well for the youngsters.
When Nian Zu left, he began penning his orders with renewed vigor, sending Lieutenant General Akanai towards the west to deal with the scattered Defiled once the Flying Tiger Fortress was secured. The Bekhai tribesmen would be safe there, away from the Society, so long as Martial Law was upheld. While it was not a glorious job, the Brigadier Kai had mucked it all up, losing the majority of the soldiers under his command. A worthless fool of a man, DuYi lacked the authority to take away his rank, and he regretted even giving the man a chance to redeem himself after his blunder at the camps.
In the meantime, he would need to find a way to moderate the situation, a small matter grown too large. Sighing in regret, he sipped his medicine, grimacing at the taste. There were too many tigers on the mountain, and left to their own devices, the Society and the Bekhai would cripple one another, to no one's benefit.
As if there were not enough problems for him to deal with. Truly, the position of Marshal was akin to tending to children. Loud, arrogant, murderous children. He dreamed of simply retiring, and leaving all the problems to whomever the Emperor appointed. Let those fools deal with these headaches, while he lived in quiet retirement with Yuzhen. Perhaps then she would find a husband and settle down. He looked forward to being called grandfather, a far more rewarding title than Marshal of the North.