City of Payi, an important military stronghold located in the province of Dusa. Naturally, it wasn’t as sturdy as the world’s largest fortress, Fort Warren. Both the extent and the qualities of its defensive fortifications were much less impressive, but as a stronghold, it was well protected by high walls and a moat.
Earlier this week, a large Demon Army had barricaded themselves on the western bank of Grey Waters. Due to the Demon Prince, Kadun’s arrival, any chance for Stirling’s Central Army to continue their retreat westwards by crossing the river had vanished completely. As the encircling lines of the Demon Army closed in on Stirling from all fronts, the Central Army had less and less space to manoeuvre. In order to avoid getting surrounded in the open, Stirling was forced to retreat back to Payi. His only chance was to reinforce the city’s defences as much as he could before the enemy’s arrival.
At dusk, from the west, the direction of the Grey Waters, shapes of black began to march over the horizon. Everywhere in the city, alarms and trumpet echoed, signalling the riders to settle their horses and the infantries to man the walls. They were as ready as they could be. Soon the noises were swept away by a wave of silence, leaving only the sound of wind soughing over the high walls, where the great banner flapped mightily in the wind.
Standing on top of the wall, Stirling could see the black mass slowly inching towards the city.
After crossing the Grey Waters, Prince Kadun’s forces were the first ones to arrive. Armed with swords, spears and longbows, the Demons fanned out from the west, forming a huge moon shaped formation around the City. Carried by the wind, the sea of banners swayed high above the gigantic Demon Army. Like an endless forest, the black mass engulfed everything west of the City. Yet, those weren’t even the bulk of the Demon Army. They were only the hundred-thousand advancing forces of the Seneya Tribe, led by Prince Kadun.
Halting their advance at the open clearing three kilometers from the city, the enemy forces started to make camp. The terrifying visages of the Demon soldiers were faintly visible in the distance. A dozen Demon riders even rode closer to the walls, taunting the defenders with unintelligible words and twisted faces. Even though ZiChuan Xiu knew exactly what they were saying, he was not interested in repeating those words. However, the Demon riders were surprisingly cautious in their approach as they never once came within the arrow distance.
The night came, but the darkness did not. All the villages, farms and houses… every building in the vicinity of the City were set to the torch. Everywhere, fires burned and smokes drifted to the sky, washing the dark clouds with a layer of crimson. At the nearby forest, terrified birds and animals scattered wildly in opposite direction, leaving only their shrieks echoing in the darkness.
All the trees near the City were cut down, by both the defenders and the attackers. The Demons used the wood to fortify their camps, and the defenders simply wanted to make it harder for the enemy to approach undetected. Illuminated by the countless bonfires, Prince Kadun’s forces worked hard throughout the night. By dawn, the small forest near the city was turned into an open field, giving way to a massive encampment three kilometers from the city. Even though it was still smaller in size than the City of Payi, the massive wooden structure came into being overnight. The speed and the effectiveness of the Demon Engineers were certainly not to be underestimated.
Stirling prohibited his forces from attacking, and as a result, the advancing Demon Forces were allowed to continue their work undisturbed.
Under the cover of night, more and more Demon reinforcements arrived. Two, three, ten, then a hundred divisions crept into view. Wherever they passed, an unbroken stream of torches brightened the dark skyline. A single strand split into hundreds of cords made of light, snaking further and further, stretching longer and longer, all the way to the end of the horizon. Where the bright pinpoints of light on the ground met with the stars in the sky, like a river converging with the ocean, the border between heaven and earth blurred. From every direction, countless sparks of light surged towards the City of Payi, like a mighty roaring tsunami.
By dawn, the shape of the enemy forces became visible to the naked eye, and it was truly a sight to behold. Behind the thin layer of the morning fog, countless men and horses lined up shoulder to shoulder, their faces indistinguishable. There was no formation left to speak of. The endlessly snaking lines of the Demon Army covered every inch of visible land around and beyond the city in a black mass. They stood firmly against the walls of Payi, crushing and pressuring the City and its defenders under their mountainous weight.
Holding their breath, the hearts of human defenders pounded in their chests as they watched the mighty Demon Army in silence. The Demon faces were all so frightening, and their number was beyond count. Their army was a boundless ocean, and their banners, the clouds floating above. As far as the eye could see, the dark uniform of the Demon Army blackened the sight.
It was the ultimate showdown between man and Demon. The most famous General of ZiChuan, who had yet to lose a single battle since the beginning of the war, would have to face the mighty Demon Empire and the huge army of the Far Eastern Rebels. In the imminent frontal confrontation, who would come out ahead?
At the Demon encampment, Prince Kadun, Duke Rudy, General Yun Qian Xue and many other generals stared coldly at the high walls of Payi looming behind the lingering mist. The same thoughts coursed through their minds. Their most feared opponent was standing on top of that wall! It was the final battle! Once they took care of him, nothing else would be able to stop their mighty army!
They all knew the battle would be a long one, and incredibly vicious, but the outcome was almost certain. On one side, there was Stirling’s Army —a force of less than a hundred thousand. On the other, the entirety of the Rebel Forces from every province in the Far Eastern Regions, and the entire might of the Demon Army from every city and village in the vast territories of the Demon Empire. A humongous gathering of non-human races which had materialized in front of the human defenders overnight, like monsters coming out of a nightmare.
The black skinned lowborn Demon Soldiers from the Seneya Tribe cursed and shouted at the defenders, each one louder than the other. In terms of body size, they weren’t any taller or bigger than the Humans, but they were much fiercer. The rest of the world had come to know them for three qualities: brutality, toughness and stupidity. The thought of the upcoming battle alone was enough to make them tremble in excitement. The only thing they ever believed in was absolute power, and their simple-mindedness made them the perfect soldier for the Highborn —who usually did the thinking for them.
The hairy Beastmen were much taller and bulkier than the lowborn Demons, but at the same time they were also the most superstitious race within the alliance. They were afraid of god, lightning, or anything they couldn’t comprehend. Compared to the vicious Demons, they were much gentler in nature. That is, as long as they weren’t provoked. They were also firm believers of the warrior code —honor and glory. In battle, they were fierce and brave, but they also tired quickly. If a battle happened to last longer than an hour, they were usually among the first ones to retreat.
The Serpents were known for their snake-like heads. Their upper body, on the other hand, was surprisingly similar to that of a Human; they also had only two arms. Their lower body, however, was clearly that of a snake’s. Their long tail frequently writhed around in the mud, their red eyes were full with cunningness and suspicion, and their voices were harsh and bizarre. Despite being one of the many races comprising the alliance, they were often looked down upon by the other races. During the Battle of Fort Warren, they were the first ones to turn tail and run, and if the many battles fought afterwards against Stirling had proven anything, it was the indisputable truth that the Serpents were much better at running away than fighting the actual battle!
Meanwhile, the Dragonkin stared quietly at the walls, wondering just how powerful their future enemies would be. Even though the rumors said the Dragonkin were physically stronger than even the taller Beastmen, their bodies were not much different than those of the Humans —except for their heads. If a comparison had to be made, their skulls shared many similar traits with the alligators but, according to the Dragonkin themselves, the shape resembled that of a Dragon, the legendary ancient divine beast nesting in the clouds. The Dragonkin also claimed to be the descendants of both Dragons and Humans, hence the name Dragonkin. The validity of their claim, however, could neither be proved nor disproved, since no one had ever seen a real Dragon. However, when a Dragonkin stared at you in silence while chattering its sharp teeth between its massive jaws, it was probably in your best interest not to doubt its words. The Dragonkin were a quiet folk; they rarely spoke, even in battles. Despite their quiet tendencies, they were tough, united, and no doubt the most powerful race in the Far Eastern Regions. Luckily for the others, they were few in number.
Amongst all the races of the alliance, the most terrifying one were definitely the Armored Beasts. Like the middle-class Demons, they were the elite of the Demon Army; huge in size, and over two meters tall, the tough scales covering their bodies were as thick as the armor used by Human soldiers. In spite of their physical prowess and brute strength, they weren’t much brighter than the lowborn, and they couldn’t move as fast. Throughout the long history of wars against the Demons, the Humans had long been aware of the terror known as the Armored Beasts. The Armored Beasts were best used in a frontal assault. No matter how sturdy the defences were, they could always punch through the enemy lines with ease. Therefore, they were often deployed as the vanguards of an attack. Only the Heavy Cavalries of ZiChuan’s Army could match them in terms of destructive force.
In the Demon ranks, the ruling echelon belonged to the upper class of Demons, also known as the Royal Blood. In terms of appearance, they were no different than Humans, but their terrifying power was not something a Human could replicate. They were the perfect combination of power and wisdom. Almost every male born in the Royal families was a natural warrior, and gifted with great intelligence. This was one of the reasons why most of the top tier warriors were born into the Royal family. In addition to their inhuman reaction speed and extraordinary intelligence, they were also cruel and had a much longer lifespan than Humans —often over a hundred and fifty years. It was a race as close to perfection as it gets. Unfortunately, they weren’t very fertile, which explained their small numbers. Even in its most prosperous times, the amount of males in the Royal family had never surpassed a hundred. In addition to that, they were aggressive by nature and often fought amongst themselves. The inability to work together as a whole was as much of a curse to the Highborn as it was a blessing to the Humans.
Aside from the already mentioned races, there were also Dwarfs in the Demon ranks. They might not catch your attention at first due to their limited height —barely taller than a Human’s waist, but the huge axes and broadswords in their hands were no joke. They could crush the arm of a Human defender even if the blow was absorbed by their thickest shields. There were also goblins, but they were gentle and kind creatures who mainly served the great army as their servants; caring for their equipment, supplies…
It was a war between Humans and all races in the world. Stranded in the middle of the vast ocean, City of Payi was like a lone boat, shaking from side to side, trying desperately to stay afloat. Beyond the black mass of Demons, thousands of hearts worried for the fate of the Central Army. The city surrounded by the Demons and Rebels could very well become the final resting place for the hundred thousand brave heroes of ZiChuan.
On top of the walls, no matter whether it was an officer or a common soldier, seeing the overwhelming size of the enemy forces, the ocean of men and horses, the blinding radiance of their blades and the countless waving banners, their faces all paled as fear reflected from their eyes. It was going to be a terrible storm, a storm that would sweep House ZiChuan and each of them away. It was a test, which the outcome would decide whether they lived or died.
Commander Stirling of the Central Army patrolled the walls, inspecting the defences. He carefully noted the weakness of the western wall, where the merlons of the battlement was too thin and in need of reinforcing. He oversaw the task personally, even joking around with the soldiers hard at work. “That is a rock, not your wives. You have to treat it with care!” The crowd laughed. His calmness had infected the soldiers around him. Everyone believed that the invincible General would bring them home, safely. Everywhere he went; courage and hope were instilled into the hearts of his men. But no one saw the worry in his eyes hidden behind his gentle smile.
Stirling arrived at the part of the battlement entrusted to the Xiu’s Company. Seeing ZiChuan Xiu cowering in a corner writing a letter, his smile was gone. He approached him, asking: “What are you doing?”
“I’m writing a will!” ZiChuan Xiu responded without so much as lifting his head.
Stirling didn’t know whether he should shout or laugh. “Seriously…” His voice turned serious. “There is something I haven’t told anyone. There are no reinforcements coming our way. House ZiChuan doesn’t have anything left to send. Right now, they barely have the strength to hold Fort Warren. Where would they find an army big enough to rescue us?”
ZiChuan Xiu continued writing. “Right, I know. Is there breakfast for tomorrow?”
Stirling spoke solemnly. “I’m not kidding. Promise me, if you get the chance, do not worry about us and do not look back. Just make sure you get as far away from here as you can. You came here because of me, if anything happens to you, I won’t be able to live with myself!”
“Surely I’m not the only one who has the chance to get away if he tried?”
Stirling shook his head. “I can’t. They are all trapped here because they placed their faith in me. If I can’t bring them home alive, at the very least, I can join them in death.”
“And you think I can leave you behind?” ZiChuan Xiu raised his head as he tucked away the letter in his pocket. “Right, I’ve made up my mind. I will donate my pair or stinky socks to the treasury. Who knows, they might just promote me to Commander after I die.”
Stirling laughed bitterly. “Can’t you be serious for once? Do you realize the gravity of the situation?”
“I’m being serious, Brother!” ZiChuan Xiu replied in a serious tone. “As brothers, it means that we are willing to live and die together. We have been through worse than this! Besides, they desecrated our lands, killed our people. I hate them to the very core. I can’t wait to fight them. Now that they are here, how can I just run away? Brother. We will stand together, and fight them head on! We will make the Demons fear the name of House ZiChuan!”
Stirling nodded emotionlessly. “Well said! But what is going on behind you?”
Behind him, Xiu’s Company’s soldiers danced and sang, waving flags written in Demon language. “We surrender!” “Hail to the Emperor!” “Hail to the mighty Demon Army!”…
“Damn it, Luo Jie you idiot! Didn’t I tell you not to show them until our walls are breached?! Put them away quickly…”
“Sir, we are only rehearsing! If we don’t practise the words now, what if we forget them in the midst of chaos?”
“Hmm, you got a point there… But we need to work on your pronunciation. At this rate, they will kill you for insulting their language.”
“Hey, Stirling, wait! I wasn’t finished! Where was I? Oh, right. I said we are going to fight until the bitter end. We will never give up…”
Inside the Commanding tent in the Demon Encampment, dressed majestically, a tall, skinny and dark faced member of the Royal Family sat in the middle, pondering. Rapid footsteps approached from outside, halting hesitantly just beyond the entrance. The man’s voice trembled slightly. “Your Highness, may I come…”
“Approach!” The Royal Blood interrupted him impatiently.
Marquis Halcyon stumbled into the tent, and immediately prostrated himself to the Royal Blood the moment he crossed the threshold. He stuttered while he kissed the feet of his master. “May Your Highness live forever…”
The Royal Blood moved his feet away in disgust, but did not give him the permission to stand. He spoke harshly. “Marquis Halcyon!”
“Yes. Yes, I’m here! I await your order…”
“You wounded Yun Qian Xue’s shoulder, and killed his men. My brother is asking for your head!”
Still prostrating on the floor, Marquis Halcyon cried with despair in his voice. “Your Highness is most wise. I did no such thing. I’m being framed! You have to help me, Your Highness!”
“Weren’t you the one telling me that all the Beastmen, Serpents, Dwarfs and Goblins in the Far Eastern Regions only answer to you? Yun Qian Xue’s report says, the enemy contacts were all Beastmen, who claimed it was you who sent them. They even have your Banners and Seal. So you tell me, what was going on. Hmm?”
“Your Highness. The despicable men of House ZiChuan framed me! They must have disguised as one of my unit…”
“I have checked. Stirling’s army is the only army House ZiChuan has left still active in the Far Eastern Region, and there is not a single Beastman in his service. They are all Humans. In case you don’t already know, Marquis Halcyon. His Majesty is most furious. Yun Qian Xue is one of his favourite general. Now you made him a cripple.” Prince Kadun didn’t say out loud what he was really thinking. “If only you got rid of that annoying Yun Qian Xue for good!”
“Your Highness, you have to speak to His Majesty on my behalf. I’m the most loyal servant to the Empire. It was a trap laid by the enemy…”
“I already did. Do you really think your head would still be where it is right now if I didn’t?”
“Thank you, Your Highness! I will never be able to repay the kindness you have bestowed upon me. If there is anything…”
“You shouldn’t thank me yet. There is more! I did say my part, but so did my brother. Father hasn’t made up his mind yet. Marquis Halcyon, this is the time to prove your loyalty!”
“Yes, of course. Please show me the way, Your Highness!”
Prince Kadun went straight to the point, pointing towards the high walls of Payi behind the curtains of fog in the distance. “Bring me the head of Stirling! I give you a day. Is that enough?”
Marquis swallowed hard, answering bitterly. “Your wish is my command, Your Highness!”
Dear Readers, we have reached the half way point of the first book, an important milestone for me personally. It also marks the change of pace in the story.
As summer approaches, and since the story has not managed to garner enough interest to warrent the amount of time I’m spending on it every week, the story will now continue at a steady pace of 1 regular chapter part per week (or two short ones). Of course if someone is feeling generious, I can be persuaded to spend more time indoors, but until then, I’m feeling like spending more time in the sun.
Thank you for supporting and reading the story thus far, I hope you have enjoyed it as much as I did.