Chapter 3.2: Never try to out scheme a Fiend.
“Taiyang likes to fancy itself as the greatest nation in all of history, and I agree. They alone are entirely united by their devotion to the one being known to be above all others, their Emperor. Under the Golden Dragon’s guidance, the disparate elements of the mortal consciousness are engineered so that all might be useful to the empire as a whole. For all who are of Taiyang are the chosen of the Emperor, and thus are all equally treasured.
Equality of Labor unified under Divine Purpose is the most important tenet in Taiyang’s philosophy, and both humble peasant and adroit general proudly enforce that truth. There is one problem though, the same problem with any rule by blood: The Heirs. For there can only be one Emperor, and for his will to be uncontested, he can have no equals. This truth above all others drives his heirs towards all manner of desperations, much to the chagrin of their subordinates…
Abram did not receive much of a welcome from his Taiyang compatriots. Not due to any malice on their part, everyone was simply too focused on their appointed duties to give much more than a polite hello. Much of the morning had been defined by that same monotony. Even as he walked through the camp, seeing to his spirit soldiers and ensuring that their armor and the runes within were in good shape. He also made sure to cast a glance at the magic prepared by the Imperial Mages, and concealed updates to the runes that decorated his soldiers’ armor.
He struggled not to laugh as he did so. “I can’t believe how easy they are to read. This must be a deliberate opening. If not, well I suppose life does grant clemency...at least once every so often.”
Evangeline had split off and was counseling the Imperial Mages on several of the tactics used by many Wizard families in Leo, and those that had been readily adopted by the various mage colleges and orders of the kingdom. At least those in the general area. Abram had surmised that this was more to assess Evangeline’s knowledge than to strengthen their own. And the fact that his steps were dogged by General Shen’s daughter, her name now revealed to be Zi, confirmed this.
She was hardly intrusive by action or speech, but there was a lethal element to the young woman’s presence that had even the more seasoned soldiers on their guard. Her sword brother, named Nobunaga, was a comparatively tame presence. Abram thought this far more disconcerting, even as he turned his head to see the young man respectfully bow with a polite smile on his face.
“Beware the predator who acts as prey.”
When Nobunaga rose from his bow, he stood with his hands folded at his back and remained at military attention. “I have a question for you, Sir Abram. If you would indulge me?”
Abram cast a glance at Zi, who kept her face immobile and stone-like. But there were cracks behind the façade. Whatever questions Nobunaga had, she had more.
So Abram figured he might as well open up the forum, and offer her a polite way in. “You may ask what you will.”
Nobunaga made another polite half-bow before resuming his previous pose. “Thank you, sir. I wish to ask about the presence of Dragons within your Kingdom.”
“Leo is not my birthplace, though I’ve hardly lived anywhere else for as long as I have here.”
Nobunaga injected some false surprise into his face and tone. “You have been to Taiyang?”
“Yes, even in adulthood I have seen the Palace of the Golden Hand as it rises towards the sky, though I’ve never entered it. Back to your question: What is your curiosity about western dragons?”
“Why are they not held in the same regard as our Emperor is in Taiyang?”
Abram kept his eyes steady, and his tone almost lazy. He knew that this was more than a simple exercise in curiosity, and hoped to reveal it’s true aim. “Not every dragon is as benevolent as your Emperor. Some are forever ambitious and mad. The more vicious of the Red Dragons are the worst among them.”
Zi stepped forward with a scowl on her face. “And why has Leo not simply bent the knee to creatures so superior to them?”
“An inherent defiance I suppose. With some hope to prove quality through one’s character, despite the presence of an elven aristocracy.”
Zi’s eyes narrowed. “And we can expect such a defiant spirit during the expedition?”
Abram kept a smile from creeping into his features, not wanting even a stray movement of skin beneath his helmet to betray him. “There it is. An assessment of my character, disguised behind questions on Leo as a whole.”
Abram acted obligingly and kept his voice casual. “Yes, though you could have read as such from any history book.”
Nobunaga smiled, while Zi kept her cool gaze. Before they could continue, a messenger, a young orcish man, rushed towards them.
Upon reaching them, he took a few breathes, and then relayed his message in his native Taiyang. “His Highness the Prince and the honorable General Shen require your collective presence in the command tent. Now if you will excuse me, I have other messages to deliver.”
The young man ran to another part of the camp after that and was indeed delivering sealed scrolls to more of the officers. Abram took note of that and then walked off to the command tent with the Tengu in tow.
Once they entered the tent, a large pavilion with a large carpet beneath the circular table in the center, Abram saw that Evangeline had arrived before him. Also here were General Shen, Prince Sun, and some of the senior officers, including the mage commander and the head of engineering.
The Prince glared at Abram and Evangeline but the other officers simply stood at attention until General Shen took his seat.
He then gestured towards the table “Please, let us begin. And though our new friends are versed in Taiyang, I ask that all future conversation be in common, for the sake of convenience.”
Abram and the others nodded and took their seats, even Prince Sun. Once they had settled, General Shen cleared his throat and began. “Now that we are assembled, the work can begin. His Majesty has a strategy that I believe will bring a swift conclusion to the fighting.”
Prince Sun slammed a fist on the table. “And show these peasants the true power of the Golden Dragon.”
General Shen kept an even face. “Indeed, if you can draw your attention to the map-”
The old soldier pointed a hand at the paper map drawn in the center. A basic thing that covered the layout of the city and dotted with accurate representations surrounding geography. His finger rested on top of Ulq’s eastern wall. “-the eastern wall, according to our intelligence, is mounted with the most of the garrison’s Fulcrum batteries. But on the northern and western walls-”
He pointed at the aforementioned walls on the map, and Abram noted a strangely obvious flaw in the walls structure, which he pointed out. “-Is the Scrying tower.”
Prince Sun frowned, but Shen nodded with a smile. “Indeed, they expect us to come in force from the east, using our cannon to soften them up. Instead, we will lay down a barrage as they expect but-”
The Prince stood, attempting to cement his point. “I shall lead our main force across the river, our approach masked by the cannons, and I will destroy the tower with the bombs that our soldiers shall ferry across the river.”
Evangeline rolled her eyes, but then looked up at Abram. He nodded, and she spoke. “What’s our part in all this?”
Prince Sun snorted. “Overpriced fodder.”
General Shen closed his eyes, calming himself. “Your Highness, I ask that you refrain from insulting our fellows in battle.”
The Prince’s arrogance was not halted, and there was the barest hint of laughter in his voice as he spoke. “Fellows in battle? They are not but mercenaries and their whores-”
Abram gripped his hand on the arm of his chair, but then relaxed and laid a soft finger on the diagram of the eastern wall. “Vanguard.”
General Shen looked towards the map. After a few examining motions of his eye, a wily grin spread across his face. “Explain Sir Abram.”
“The people in charge of Ulq’s defense are most likely well studied in your strategies. And if there is indeed a network of mystic artillery protecting the city, then it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination if they were to have a network of wards as well.”
Shen gestured for the fiend to continue. “Meaning?”
Abram traced his finger across the map, as he laid out his point. “The barrage will keep their attention for a time, and perhaps they will even think you are trying to protect your men by keeping them back. But they know that we accompany you, and will most likely expect us to be the vanguard force, suffering the initial losses for the sake of the greater army.”
Prince Sun remained standing but kept a pouting face. “What is the point of giving them an attack they expect?”
It was difficult for Abram to keep his patience. He could have sworn that he felt his ichor filled veins throbbing across his forehead. But he kept his self-control and managed to continue his presentation. “At worst, it will spread their forces thinly enough that there will be less resistance to your own attack. And If I’m right, it will stretch the power supplied by the mystic network.”
Zi’s voice came into the conversation with its expected crispness, and she kept her arms folded. “You not only intend to distract them but overextend their resources.”
Abram couldn’t help but smile at being understood. Though it also made him sad, knowing what he would have to do to these people in just a few hours. Yet no such emotion came into his voice. “If they have not had the opportunity to prepare for an attack, especially in advance, they will not be able to operate both the wards and the Fulcrum at the same time. If they keep the wards up for the barrage, then our combined assault will have the opportunity to get to the walls. Where our magicians can disable the wards without fear of the Fulcrums. If they instead power their Fulcrums, it will be my soldiers that take the brunt.”
Zi grasped her arms in some excitement. “While our cannon reduces them to ashes.”
General Shen looked at Prince Sun, who struggled for a reason to protest. His Highness eventually sat down, keeping that same pouting expression.
General Shen though, rapped his fingers on the table in approval. “A sound course of action. And as there has not been any disagreement, it is the one we will take.”
There were approving grunts and several repetitions of “as you command” from the rest of the council, and then all were dismissed. Abram and Evangeline left the pavilion. Passing all the many soldiers and keeping their heads down before arriving at their tent.
Once inside, Abram motioned for Evangeline to get to work. “So that went well.”
“Yeah, but that asshole better shape up.”
The young warlock kept talking, even as she examined the room with a glowing stream of green light in her hand. She found several sigils throughout the pavilion and looked to Abram for confirmation. “They better pay up when we’re done. I’m sick of people thinking that we’re a charity just because you’re a Knight.”
The Silvered Fiend smiled beneath his helm and then conjured a small box in his hand. He placed it on the bed, before waving a hand over it. The box whirred, then went silent. Until Abram’s own voice came from it. “We have a contract, and that’s that. I’m sure they will know better than to dishonor it.”
Evangeline listened to the box drone on in a conversation that Abram and she had prepared many months ago for moments just like this. She suppressed a laugh and then nodded at Abram with an extended hand. He took it, then closed his eyes.
Upon opening them, he found himself still holding Evangeline’s hand. Only now they were standing in the command Pavilion, deserted by all except General Shen, Zi, and Prince Sun.
Evangeline eyed the others suspiciously. “You sure they can’t see us?”
“Positive, and I’ve called for two of our knights to stand guard at the front of our tent, in case someone gets curious.”
Prince Sun looked to be in a fury, while the General and his daughter seemed to be contemplating something.
Evangeline took advantage of the distraction. “How did you set this up?”
Abram didn’t even bother keeping the pride out of his voice. “When I gripped the chair in supposed anger, I wove a spell sigil within the small crack I made. The sigil sunk into the wood of the chair, replacing the wood with material from my forge. And with my new abilities, I can see anything in range of one of my constructs. It’s a good thing we stayed as long as we did, and that I was able to talk. Otherwise, they might have noticed.”
Prince Sun’s fury finally abated and he spoke on as sensibly as he could manage. “I have no concern for your misgivings. We will continue with the original plan.”
General Shen kept a formal tone and face, but the twitching in his eye was a clear indicator of his annoyance. “Your Highness, the original plan was made when Marshall Kiernan led the Imperial Flame. With Sir Abram in charge, we must consider a new approach.”
“He is a demon! Unworthy of being dirt on my heel!”
The general massaged his temples, with tension starting to overcome his tone. “I understand your feelings on the matter. But you know very well that many of our Empire’s advancements come from our collaboration with reformed demons, as well as the insights of your own family.”
Cruelty and viciousness were not even disguised from the Prince’s brag. “This demon is weak.”
A thought dawned on Evangeline. “Abram, they probably set up their traps before we arrived yesterday.”
Abram shrugged. “I figured.”
“That means they heard everything, even your break”
A coy smile crept across The Silver Fiend’s face. “Good thing we were too tired for anything else then.”
Evangeline punched Abram in the shoulder, with no discernible effect except to make him chuckle.
But the good humor was again broken by Prince Sun’s ranting. “You heard him! He weeps over the necessary costs of war.”
General Shen lifted a cold stare at the young prince. “As would anybody who knows them.”
The royal scion whirled on his godfather. His face was red with anger, just as his dragon’s eyes were alight with a furious glow. “You doubt my ability?”
The general regarded the young man with a pitying eye. A pity which became weighed down with the down with experience that only an old veteran could have. “Sun, no matter how much training you have or how much your father may have preached about it: Anyone who hasn’t been in war knows nothing about war.”
Sun stomped over to the old man and made a show of standing taller than him. At seeing this, Zi’s lethal gaze returned, and her hand dropped to her sword. Her father raised a hand to calm her, and despite initial resistance, she complied.
Though even this did not break the Prince’s stride. “You will refer to my father as His Imperial Majesty, or I will hand your daughter over to a prison legion and make you watch.”
General Shen’s anger surfaced for a moment, his face remaining like stone, but his eyes burning with rage. Such was its potency that Prince Sun stepped back for a moment. Once General Shen regained his composure though, the Prince regained his own.
By some twist of fate, His renewed arrogance was even greater than before. “It is good that you understand me. Now, we will continue with the plan. We let Abram send his troops from the east. Once I have disabled the Scrying Tower, You will shell the entire eastern wall, with the Imperial Flame caught in the middle.”
Once more, General Shen appealed to whatever passed for his charge’s good nature. There was almost desperate quality in his words. “Your Highness, that plan might have worked if the Knights of the Imperial Flame were still divided and under the incapable leadership of Kiernan. These new soldiers are sheathed in demonic steel and seem entirely loyal to Abram Xian. Even if we kill thousands of them, it is all too likely that even our heaviest ordinance will fail to destroy their master. And with his back literally to the wall, he will fight with all the fury that his demonic blood can provide.”
“That’s why we have our mages practicing anti-spirit magic.”
“Which Abram will adapt to the moment he sees it in action.”
The Prince cast aside such caution with a practiced regal gesture. “Then you will have to be swift. My will is my fathers, and we wish to see The Imperial Flame snuffed out.”
General Shen looked at Sun for a long time, as if he were searching for something. Whatever it was, it was nowhere to be found. So, Shen hung his shoulders in defeat and bowed. “If that is your command, your highness.”
The Prince smiled, humming an old war tune between his tips, and then left the pavilion. Once he was gone, General Shen sat in his chair and rested his head in his hands.
Zi sat next to him. There was a moment of silence, only broken when the young warrior could not contain her anxiety any longer. “I don’t like this father.”
The old general had collapsed into his chair by this point and looked entirely unwilling to leave it. “Neither do I. We haven’t received any messages from the Leo nobles we swayed to our cause, and if we don’t have their support then the royal army will be able to meet us in the field...That fool prince.”
Zi’s eyes narrowed, and there was a purposeful tenseness in her features. “Whether Sun is a fool or not, he’s wrong about one thing: Sir Abram will not be easy to destroy.”
“No, he won’t.”
“Then I will be the one to do it.”
Shen turned to his daughter with a horrified look in his eye. “No my child.”
The swordswoman wrapped her hand on the table as she spoke as if it would give her words some authority. “His soldiers will keep fighting as long as he is alive. Who would you trust to stop him if not your own blood?”
“I have made many sacrifices in the name of Taiyang. Two of them were your brother and sister. I beg you, do not-”
Once more the young woman insisted, her commitment shining through without a trace of fear. “I have been training for this father. We will simply say that I am there to ensure the operation’s success and when we spring the trap, I shall cut his throat.”
General Shen thought on this. If he had looked defeated before, this was somehow an even lower point. Where there had been fatigue in his eyes and body, now there was only an emptiness and weight that seemed to pull the old man to a place he’d been far too many times. His voice came out in a rasp. “You young people and your arrogance.”
Whether she was ignorant of her father’s condition or blinded by her confidence was unclear. For Zi brushed her father’s words aside, and sat straight and proud in her seat. “I know it is a poisonous thing we must do father. But that is why we must do it quickly.”
Shen remained as he was for what seemed a long time. But he reclaimed his controlled and professional demeanor and spoke to his daughter in an unfeeling tone. “Very well. You have my consent, but not my blessing.”
Zi stood from her chair and took her helmet from the table. “Then I will make do.”
She walked out, leaving her father alone. Abram nodded at Evangeline, and with another grasp of hands, they returned to their true vision. The trinket Abram left on the bed was still droning on. He deactivated it at a suitable moment and then walked out with Evangeline.
Their voices were obscured by the marching of feet and the treads of cannon wheels, yet Evangeline wisely kept her voice low. “Looks like we were right to back the Lion.”
Abram didn’t have enough time to say “I told you so”. He was too focused on maintaining the momentum of his planning. “Indeed. Do you still have contact with your familiar?”
Evangeline gave a satisfied smile. “She dropped the package, and watched it get handed off to the girl in charge.”
The Silvered Fiend let his gaze pass over the soldiers rushing around and before him. He saw their fear, held barely in check by the labor set to them. Even the most hardened soldiers were not immune to this, but he had no time to assuage such things. He then lifted his gaze toward the distant towers of Ulq and the tiny slivers of people that only his demon’s eyes could see.
“Then we’ll let the other players deal in, and take the whole pot.”