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Stem the Tide
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…
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