Xian

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Chapter 3.4: A more Callous Answer.

“Across all histories, no subject has received more attention than war. Love may be a close contender, but as we’ve already established, many “heroes” are more than willing to wage war to protect what they love. Meaning that even the greatest of emotional connections are no more than base fuel to the fires of war. And really, it’s no surprise. There is no experience so profound as war, for only when we are made to fight for our lives, do we discover their worth.

Many will talk of the savagery of war, of how its countless horrors scar the spirits of its combatants. It is the other way around. War is only made possible by the horrors within the spirit, within the faults in our hearts. This talk of heroes and monsters being forged in the crucible of war is nonsense. The rare fools named hero were always as such, war only revealed them. The infinite cowards named monster were always in wait, war only freed them…

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The march had started. The disciplined ranks of Taiyang regulars sallied from their camp, with Abram’s spirit soldiers in lockstep. When he had their measure, Abram looked away to see Evangeline preparing her horse for the final march. She was just about to mount up when Abram decided to walk over and get just close enough to whisper: “Boo.”

Evangeline didn’t even turn, but Abram could see a wide smile on her lips. “Really? That’s the best you can do?”

“I figured you wouldn’t be in the mood for much else today, considering our impending deaths.”

Evangeline leaned back into Abram’s waiting arms and laid her hands upon his. “That better not be the case. I’m a free agent now, I’d like to enjoy it.”

“A completely free agent?”

Evangeline made a show of considering her next words. “Hmmm...I might see you on the weekends, or Wednesday nights if something else doesn’t come around.”

Abram widened his eyes, with undisguised cockiness invading his tone. “Well then-” Abram unwrapped himself from Evangeline, his voice playful, yet somewhat inviting.

“-I suppose I’ll just pack up and-”

Evangeline ran up and hugged him tightly. “I’m just kidding...I need you now.”

They stayed like this for a few moments, then the Imperial leadership began their assembly. General Shen, his guards, and the Prince were gathered with some of their senior officers.

They were already arguing, with Prince Sun being the most vocal. “I wish you had let me say some words. It would have given me a chance to cement the imperial will into the minds of our troops.”

General Shen was done disguising his contempt. “Our soldiers are already worried about their families back home, and their friends who march with them. The steady beat of a normal march allows them to discard such thoughts and focus on the task at hand.”

“The work we do is in the name of glorious and imperial purpose. We should relish in it, and encourage our lessers to do the same.”

The old general had closed his eyes through most of the Prince’s words, looking as if he were praying for strength. He only opened them when he was ready to speak. “Individual combat against another warrior has its glories. But war, true war...that is another thing entirely.”

The Prince turned up his nose at this comment. “You really are getting old.”

Abram decided to join in on this assemblage, and Evangeline followed behind. Upon reaching the others, he found himself greeted with many smiles. Perhaps expectantly, the only two who did not smile were Shen and Zi. He pitied them. Their loyalty to their people was admirable, and it was a shame that it would seal their fate.

But Abram knew there was no remedying this, even if he hoped a solution might prevent himself. For now, he took a purposeful look at the marshaled army and then turned to the officers with a purposeful gaze. “I suppose it’s time then.”

The prince smiled. “Indeed it is Sir Abram. You shall be in the van of our imperial endeavor, and the warlock shall accompany me in the flank.”

Evangeline looked at Abram for a moment, then smiled back at the prince. “That’s a hell of an invitation. I’d be happy to work with you.”

“Y-You would?”

Evangeline kept up a polite smile. Such was it’s potency that Abram was worried she might be overdoing it. But she kept her obliging guise. “Of course. You obviously need someone who can contact Abram quickly, so you know when to begin your assault. Isn’t that right?”

“W-Well yes! Of course it is.”

Evangeline chuckled softly, just enough to feign real excitement at the opportunity. “Great. I’ll get my horse then and we can ride off. Unless you need a moment to collect yourself, your highness?”

“Um...no. We can leave now.”

The Warlock curtsied and then went off to her horse while the Prince ran off to his mount and tried to catch up to her. As this was happening, the senior staff went to their respective regiments while General Shen and his Tengu bodyguards stayed to talk with Abram.

The General spoke in his typical friendly manner, though his unease was painfully obvious. “Your soldiers are quite formidable. And if they are all equipped by you-”

“They are.”

Shen laughed sharply and didn’t even bother to disguise his admiration. “You might be able to take the city on your own.”

Abram inclined his head. “I wouldn’t dream of robbing his highness of the glory.”

There was a sort of venom in his voice that set the Tengu on edge, yet amused Shen. “He was raised on the story of war instead of in it. You are quite different I think.”

“Some people are born killers. But no one is born a warrior.”

General Shen smiled weakly. “Well said, Sir Abram. I would like to change the plan, not in any major fashion, only a minor detail.”

Abram tried to sound as benign as possible. Which was easy, as he did have a real respect for the old man. “Very well, what did you have in mind?”

“Given the importance of your vanguard action, I believe your safety will be paramount. So I would like my daughter to accompany you, as a bodyguard.”

Zi walked forward and saluted in a crisp military fashion. “It would be my honor to ride forward with you.”

Abram looked over the young woman. Even in her military stoicism, the tension that came from maintaining deception shone through. The temptation to tug on that was strong, but common sense won out, and he decided to humor her. “Are you certain of this? I imagine that you would want to ensure the general’s safety.”

“I trust him to survive. Just as he trusts me to help you.”

Abram made a show of thinking on this. Then he nodded and extended his hand. “It will be a privilege to have such a skilled warrior at my side.”

She took his hand and shook it, and Abram suddenly became very grateful he was wearing a helmet. For he wouldn’t have been able to hide his disappointment otherwise.

Even as he took in the events before him.“I suppose arrogance will do that to a person. To become so powerful that you lose the ability or desire to deceive. That is a lesson I shall have to remember.”

Once the handshake was done, Abram turned back to the general. “Is there anything else, General Shen? Now is your last chance to voice your concerns.”

Shen only smiled. “No. As your warriors say: The die is cast. We shall just have to make the best of whatever roll we get.”

“I agree. You will be with the artillery and the reserves then?”

The general looked over the cannons behind him, and at the soldiers forming ranks around them. “Indeed, someone needs to keep a critical eye on the action. And an old person is just the right fit.”

Abram bowed in the Taiyang fashion. “Good fortune to you. sir.”

Shen reciprocated the bow, maintaining all military decorum. “And you as well Sir Abram. I...I had hoped we’d meet under better circumstances. We shall have to make the best of it I suppose.”

“There’s always after the battle.”

There was a pause and then a flash of shame in the old man’s eyes. It was all he could do to maintain his weak smile. “Yes. Of course.”

Despite his battlefield experience, Shen’s ineptitude at intrigue was very clear, perhaps even to the man himself. So with those final words, Shen briskly marched off with Nobunaga in tow.

Abram kept an eye on that one and sent a command to two of his invisible spirit soldiers. “Follow him, from above, and from a suitable distance.”

“Yes my lord.”

He then checked on the orders he had given to some of his other warriors, which had been carried out. Once he was satisfied, and he was done making a show of yawning, Abram turned to Zi. “Shall we go? Our men are waiting.”

Zi gave that same crisp nod. “I shall get my horse.”

Abram mounted his grand white steed just as Zi came up with her strong yet modest looking gray one. They marched alongside his columns of spirit warriors, whose demon forged armor glinted in the setting sunlight. The march was hardly quiet. Not only from the sound of steel boots but also of the marching song, sung by the Knights of the Imperial Flame as they marched off to war. It was a simple tune, and some of the soldiers couldn’t get the rhythm. But it certainly raised moral.

Even Zi seemed more relaxed, though a bit confused. “Won’t this announce our presence?”

“Our scouts haven’t reported an advance sortie. And if the enemy’s smart, they’ll keep behind their walls and mystic wards where we can’t get to them easily.”

“I see. You westerners rely very much on your cavalry for offensive maneuvers don’t you?”

Abram had expected this sort of inquest and had prepared accordingly. “The Longbow is beginning to gain more and more favor. And the Dantean republics are developing handheld versions of your cannon, even arming whole regiments with them.”

“Amazing. Are they formidable?”

Abram made a show of considering his answer. Putting up the front of sharing her concern for future battles. “For now? You’d be lucky to hit a broad wall thirty feet in front of you. But when you line them up en masse and fire them into ranks of soldiers, they can be devastating. And when using spell forged or blessed ammo? Even armored cavalry can be cut to pieces.”

There was an almost childish wonder in Zi’s eyes as she took in this knowledge. It reminded Abram of Atma. But that memory was dispelled by the more clinical tone employed by the Tengu warrior. “We have only heard distant rumors of these weapons at Taiyang. Though our long-range cannon and arcane research are in steady advance. I suppose even conquerors can learn things.”

“You share the Prince’s confidence then?”

Zi became embarrassed and thought up a hasty response. “Not entirely. I agree that we will win. Though not with the ease he hopes for.”

“A good approach. And certainly worthy of a leader.”

The surprise in the young warrior’s voice was clear. “A leader?”

This confusion was not lost on Abram, who decided to test it a little further. “Oh yes. A leader must take stock of all possibilities, even the worst ones. But such a person must also ensure that their soldiers will only ever think of the best outcome. Otherwise, they’ll never fight for you.”

Zi nodded and considered his words in silence. So the march continued, with little to no extra commentary, but with the battle song still ringing in the air. Finally, the vanguard came to the edge of the woods and streamed into view of the walls of Ulq. The river was before them, and the bridge had wisely been broken down. A gutsy move considering it had been one of stone.

Zi was incensed. “Your scouts failed to mention our lack of crossing.”

The Silver Fiend smiled beneath his helm. “Because there is no such problem.”

Abram took a good look at the shattered bridge, analyzing its structure and design. He then stretched out his hand and stones from the ground burst forth and entwined with liquid metal that poured from infernal rifts. A wide bridge of hellsteel and stone took shape, and it was strong enough to accommodate the march of thousands of soldiers at a time. As if to inaugurate its completion: One of Ulq’s Fulcrum batteries activated and shot a massive blast of mystic energy towards the bridge. The mage knights among the Vanguard ran forward and channeled their power into a massive field that blocked the barrage. This elicited a cheer from the spectral knights of the Imperial Flame. To this, Abram raised a fist in acknowledgment of their cheering, which elicited even more bravado.

Zi rolled her eyes. “I suppose catching them by surprise was always out of the question.”

Abram couldn’t help but laugh at that. “Marching thousands of armored warriors across a river towards a fortified and heavily populated city? No, I don’t think surprise ever was in the cards.”

“I understand that now. What shall we do until Father begins the bombardment?”

“Motivate the troops.”

“Are they not merely spirits?”

Abram looked at his soldiers, some of whom he’d known since his training. And all of them chained together in this parody of life. Yet they seemed truly excited at the thought of this battle. They were all still sapient and sane. “They still have a soul. And they need motivation as much as any other.”

Abram trotted forward on his horse, gaining the attention of his knights and their entourages. They were all clad in thick yet mobile armor, and they were all members of the new guard that had died for the ideals that he had inspired in them. He drew the Mors Deus and thrust it into the air. A great burst of sapphire energy shot up into the sky, bright as a comet. Upon seeing this, the knights of the Imperial Flame let out a cheer, which Abram quieted down with his booming voice.

“Now that I have your attention. I have a few words to say. First: thank you. You died with loyalty in your hearts, and now that same loyalty carries you into service beyond death. I am truly humbled by such a gift, and I will earn it. You have my word on that.”

The knights nodded at that, some of them mumbled affirmative words and “we know” among themselves. Not distracted by this, Abram continued.

“Secondly, you may be thinking of the families you have left behind. Of the friends whose hands you will never clasp and voices you will never hear with living ears again. It is my pleasure to tell you, that this shall not be your fate. You shall once again wear true bodies and feel the wind and sun in all their annoyances and glories. But this can only come if you fulfill my third point.”

The knights were now held in rapt attention. And awaited Abram’s next words. Which he gave with an almost bestial edge in his voice.

“Those soldiers we fight tonight are just like you. They are mothers and fathers, husbands, and wives. They have people waiting for them at their homes. And they will fight to see them again...but they will not care for any kinship they might share with you. No. They will cut and punch, and even bite your spectral faces off if it means they get to see their families again. And even though you are beyond death, and sheathed in the finest of arms, you can still be put down. An enchanted arrow or a lucky arcane bolt can still hurt you. And that means one thing. You must fight harder than your enemy. To protect what little you have you must take everything the enemy has. This is the way of war. This is the way of warriors. So take up your weapons, think of those who you will see after this hell tonight, and kill anyone stupid enough to keep you from them! For the Imperial Flame!”

The knights drew their weapons and thrust them into the air. “For the Imperial Flame!”

“Upon the first cannon shot: we shall burst forth like the flames of Mars. Until then, confine all thoughts of peace to the darkest corners of your mind. And think on the monstrosities you will unleash upon your enemy. Go now.”

The knights did as they were told and lined up in columns, awaiting their chance to charge. Abram sheathed his blade and turned to make his preparations. Instead, he found Zi staring at him with fearful eyes.

He took the bait. “You didn’t like my speech?”

Zi did nothing to disguise her confusion and displeasure. “Battle is a contest of soldiers and their wills. Why paint such a merciless and desperate picture to your men?”

And Abram did nothing to hide his impatience. “Have you ever been in war?”

“I’ve put down rebels in many-”

“I’m not talking about battle or the occasional skirmish. I’m talking about real war.”

Zi shoulders shrank and she shook her head. “No. Though my father says it is horrible.”

“It is. But it can be much worse. You can empathize as much as you want with the enemy in the planning stages, do all you can to make victory quick and easy. But once the fighting starts, you can’t second guess or feel an ounce of pity. Do you know why?”

“Because you’ll die?”

Abram shook his head. “No. You might hide from the carnage, or even be taken prisoner, thanks to your “humanitarianism.” But the friends who try to save you? They get cut down. The strangers wearing the same uniform? Those who needed you to cover their charge? They are trampled beneath armored hooves. Then what’s left of your army flees, and the officers and generals get butchered by the mutineers they were too weak to lead. And then, those people you left back home? Who have no one to protect them? They are left to the mercy of those soldiers who had no trouble killing you. So, what do you think happens to them?”

Zi looked down, considering what might happen, or what she should say. Yet no words came from her mouth.

Noticing her hesitation and guessing its cause, Abram took a final chance at mercy, to test if she had the foresight to pull away from her course. He rode closer to her and kept his voice low.

“On the field, your responsibility is to the soldiers on your side, not to the idiots opposing you. If you let hesitation take you, or doubt creep into your purpose, all I said that could happen, will happen. And it will be your fault, all in the name of peace and saving lives that the other side was all too eager to spend.”

Once again, Zi seemed to be contemplating something, and Abram didn’t let up.

“Now for the final touch. And her final chance.”

“If you have any doubts about what needs to happen tonight, or if you think you’ll have any regrets about what you have to do in the name of victory, now is the time to say them.”

Zi remained silent. No sound except for the clinking of hellsteel and the arcane discharge of distant fulcrum could be heard. Finally, the young Tengu lifted her chin, put on her helmet, and looked Abram straight in the eye. “No, Sir Abram. I know my duty. And I will execute it to the letter.”

Abram nodded but gritted his teeth behind the safety of his helmet. “Well, no one can say that I didn’t try. Now I must take my own advice. Before all I promised is lost.”

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