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…”
“F*ck 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.