“The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which on no account can be neglected.”
– Wu Changqing, 1st Sun General of the Dawn Imperium and 2nd Generation Worldwalker
The trembling voice from an one-armed signal captain instantly caught Lydia’s attention.
“We’ve just received word from the Fortress-City of Perym…”
The entire war room seemed to freeze. Every member of the command staff had been on their toes for hours, anxiously awaiting news from the front. Now, all eyes turned to stare at him.
“A-and-?” Marshal Tuchkov choked out with apprehension as he shuffled forward with shaky fingers. The gray-haired, elderly man was over a century-and-a-half old. He had been brought out of retirement as there was nobody else qualified left to run the nerve center of the Polisian military — the Coalition Central Command.
“G-general Golitsyn’s army… has been annihilated outside Perym.”
More than a few sharp intakes could be heard around the room. One of which came from the twenty-two year old Major Lydia Lisitsyna, senior aide-de-camp at Coalition Central.
Lydia’s mouth hung open as she slowly swiveled back to the map table. The sky-blue arrows representing General Golitsyn’s relief army flickered before fading away on the snowy, three-dimensional landscape. It was an authentic illusion, projected by the huge, enchanted table that measured at least twenty-paces wide. But for Lydia, the magic only chilled her to the bones, as what had once symbolized one-hundred-and-twelve thousand men and women dissipated into a ghostly hue in mere seconds.
Ten Polisian divisions had been raised and trained over the past six months. Combined with a twenty-thousand strong expeditionary force from their allies, the Kingdoms of Västergötland and Östergötland, they had formed a six-digit-sum that dwarfed every army since the war began.
It had been the Federation’s last hope against the Eastling scourge, only to be shattered in a single day of pitched battle against the invaders’ northern force. It had happened again, just like when she lost Aleksei, just like when she saw her own comrades destroyed, just like when she agreed to take this position…
Lydia clenched her shaking fists as she fought to control her emotions upon realizing the extent of this calamity.
Given the Great Khanate’s superior light cavalry and their brutality towards even those who surrendered, there was little chance for any Polisian soldier who marched onto that battlefield to survive the retreat. When the Eastlings captured the Grand Prince Mstislav two years ago, they stacked the prisoners up like logs and built a victory feast platform over them which slowly crushed the defeated to death. Since then, the Great Khanate has only revealed newer and ever more gruesome forms of execution.
“Marshal Tuchkov! MARSHAL!”
Lydia spun around from the map table as she heard the shrill cry from one of her juniors. The elderly commandant had collapsed onto the heated, marble floor. Only his torso stayed propped up with the support of two aides. His head had lolled to one side as though asleep, except his face was growing as white as chalk.
“Healer, HEALER! WE NEED A HEALER!”
A young Samaran woman clad in a red-bordered white robes soon ran into the war room. She crouched down next to the Marshal while pulling on a glove embroidered with shamanist symbols. Her eyes closed as she recited prayers to the ether spirits. She ran her hand just over his body, guided by her invocation magic as she sought the cause of his collapse. A lavender glow extended from her palms as she reached his cranium, and the ethereal light began to engulf his head in a cocoon of brilliance.
Lydia remembered as she watched the healer work: two of the Marshal’s granddaughters and five of his great-grandsons had marched with the army to its doom. The youngest of them had volunteered despite being barely fourteen years of age. In a single day, the Tuchkov family had lost virtually all of its heirs.
“Blood… bleeding in the head,” Healer Dasha gasped before looking up and shaking her head. “He’s having a major intracranial hemorrhage.”
“Well do something about it!” A junior staff officer who was noticeably panicking demanded.
“Even if I could stop the bleeding, I doubt he’ll ever wake up again!”
“But we have to wake him up! There’s nobody else left to take charge of Coalition Central!”
Those words did ring with truth. After two-and-a-half years and over a dozen catastrophic defeats, the Polisian Federation was scraping the bottom of the manpower barrel. All males not essential to war production, from fifteen-years-old boys to elderly grandparents, had been conscripted into the military.
When Lydia joined the army, women were only being accepted on a volunteer basis. But now? All females above the age of eighteen who have yet to become mothers were required to enter basic combat training. Female staff officers even made up nine-tenths of those in this command room.
How can we hold out against such a powerful and merciless enemy?
With her eyes dazed and her hands stiff, Lydia ignored her frantic juniors and stared blankly at the map table. Three-fifths of the Polisia Federation was already marked occupied, lost, or laid to waste. Dozens of blackened ruins marked the towns and cities that their foe had razed to the ground.
The Great Khanate had first appeared at the Polisian Federation’s southeastern borders thirty months ago. After storming the border fortress, they broke onto the steppes and demanded the subjugation of all nomadic tribes. The semi-nomadic Khanates of Astra, Sarkel, and Turan — all members of the Federated Principalities — refused and rallied their armies. Yet despite greater numbers, they were outmaneuvered and slaughtered at the Battle of Astra.
Astra’s khan surrendered. Turan switched sides altogether. Only Sarkel retreated behind their renowned White Fortress. They held out for months until Grand Prince Mstislav of Ilmen led a united army from the various Principalities south. But the following Battle of Terek annihilated the armies of Polisia. Almost every noble lost a father, a husband, or a son in that fateful struggle, and Lydia was no different as Aleksei’s death forever changed her life.
It marked the beginning of the nightmare times.
Sarkel surrendered after the battle, only to meet the butcher’s blade. The barbaric horsemen razed it in a great conflagration, and it didn’t stop there. The holocaust of war burned across the Polisian lands in the following two years. The Principalities of Seym, Oka, Dnipro, and Buh fell one after another. The streets of their fortress-cities ran red in orgies of murder and rape, while the outlying towns could only watch in horror as they fearfully submitted before the sword.
Perym had been the one exception. The Frozen Fortress had lasted against the Eastling’s northern thrust for longer than anyone could have expected: nearly four hundred days to date. The Federation had sent its largest army ever raised to break the siege before supplies ran out. But now, with another hundred thousand lives destroyed, the stronghold’s fall within weeks seemed inevitable.
“That… was our last chance,” a hopeless mutter emerged from the table’s other side. It came from Captain Elizaveta Dolina, who was no stranger to disaster as she was the only surviving platoon leader from Lydia’s company in the Battle of Desna.
Lydia clenched her fingers into tight fists. Her nails bit into her tender palms. Her shoulders were shaking, not with the fear of what was to come, but with an absolute refusal to accept the reality before her.
“No. It isn’t over yet. I will not accept defeat…”
I CANNOT accept defeat…
Her eyes clenched shut as she felt a hot tear break loose. She couldn’t help but remember the past that she had lost: those bittersweet images from her five years of marriage drifting across her mind once more. She and Aleksei could have spent more than a century together, as he inherited a magical lineage and she was born of Samaran blood. They should have raised a family and shared their lives with one another. But the cruel fates saw it fit to tear them asunder in a voracious storm of war.
His scent had long vanished from the white jacket that now adorned her shoulders, draped over her own uniform with sleeves hung loosely to each side. It was the jacket that he had promised to return for and wear in the victory parade. Now, this mundane article of clothing symbolized everything that she lived and fought for — the purpose behind her very existence in this war.
What did Aleksei and his brothers die for then!? What did our families sacrifice so much for!? Lydia’s thoughts wailed as the cracks in her mask of discipline grew. What did the dozens of girls who volunteered and trained with me, who fought alongside me in the wheat fields by the Desna River die for!?
“There’s no way to turn this around,” Lydia heard another shaky voice behind her.
“We don’t even have an army left!”
“Surrender? Have the massacres in Sarkle and Seym taught you all nothing?” A third young lady shouted.
“They chose to resist first, did they not?”
“As did we!” Lydia’s eyes snapped open as she stood back straight. She began to lash out without any composure, her boiling stress having eroded the last remnants of her self-control. “Have you all gone stupid!? Or did you all just conveniently forget!? The Grand Prince had three envoys beheaded for their insolence. Since then, our armies have resisted them in the field again and again! Every one of us has fought on the battlefield and killed Eastlings with our own hands! We’re no different than the rest they’ve butchered!”
The three envoys weren’t the original cause. The Great Khanate horsemen were still the first to draw blood. They claimed to be the master of all peoples ‘as far as the prairie grass grew’. But it was Mstislav’s response that escalated what had been an oversized cavalry raid into the holocaust of a merciless total war.
Lydia’s arms were shaking. Her countenance showed a stark contrast between the embers that burned in her blue gaze, and the forlorn tears that slowly trailed down her pale cheeks.
“Besides, have you not heard about the town of Kur? They opened their gates to the Eastlings upon sight, before being forced to pay tribute until they had no food left to give. Then those barbarians sacked them anyway!”
“But what do you propose we do? With only a handful of experienced officers and ten thousand fresh recruits?”
“They’ll be cattle to those nomads’ arrows! Sheep fed to the slaughter!”
“I’ve already lost two brothers! I’m not sending my sister out to die as–!”
“Yes, because you’d rather her be a slave to warm those barbarians’ beds!”
The noisy chatter that filled the room came to a sudden halt as the heavy oak doors crashed open and an authoritative voice burst forth:
“WHO IS IN COMMAND HERE!?”
Lydia shook her head and wiped her tear-stained cheeks. The shout had stunned her like a slap across the cheek, blowing away a myriad of thoughts and allowing her rational mind to regain a semblance of control.
“I am, Your Excellency!” She took a deep breath and tugged her uniform straight as her legs carried her across the marble floor. They stopped before the short, gray-haired elderly man who now led the Veche Assembly of Ilmen and represented the Polisian Ruling Council. Her boots snapped together as she saluted:
“Major Lydia Lisitsyna, at your command! Marshal Tuchkov has been incapacitated by a brain hemorrhage, and Colonel Raskova is out inspecting the new conscript battalions!”
“Get your girls under control, Major,” the Grand Magistrate snarled. “You’re the White Lily. Resurrect some of that backbone you showed in Desna and act like it!”
Despite a slight hunch due to his bad hip, Kazimir of Ilmen still held an overbearing presence that came naturally to his highborn station. His long robes featured gold threads embroidered into rich, crimson brocades. Meanwhile, his hand brushed the thick, bushy beard that reached down to his chest, proudly shown as an emblem of his wisdom and age.
Even upon hearing the Marshal’s fate, this old fox of the political arena did not allow his facade to slip. His only sign of surprise was a pair of raised eyebrows.
Steadied by the adamant rebuke, Lydia bit down on her lower lip until she tasted blood. The flavor of iron had helped to steel her nerves and stay in control ever since her experiences at Desna.
“Yes, Your Excellency,” Lydia bowed her head in deference.
The Grand Magistrate did not come alone either.
To Kazimir’s left stood Major Anastasia Samusenko, a young, blond beauty of elegant figure and aristocratic bearing. Her turquoise gaze fell upon Lydia with a mixture of indifference and disdain, never in doubt of whom the superior being was between them two. Though her attention stayed for barely a second before being drawn to a third, masculine physique who strode past like the wind.
With her eyes to the floor, Lydia did not catch his appearance other than a pair of large, bear-hide boots.
To Kazimir’s right, a third woman wearing loose, silky robes then stepped forward. As Lydia raised her head again, her attention instantly fell upon this middle-aged woman in flowing white garments. Her jaw almost hit the floor as she recognized the long, white hair, the willow rod with leafy sprigs, and that serene smile that she still remembered from eight years ago.
During her years of marriage, Lydia had searched far and wide to find out just who her mysterious benefactor was. But no matter how much she researched, no matter whom she paid to investigate, the answer always proved difficult to accept:
That woman… was no mere mortal.
She was Tara the White, the legendary Worldwalker and Protectress of Samarans in this world.
Standing before Lydia, Tara smiled as beautifully as she had before. Her spring-green eyes twinkled as though revealing a pleasant surprise. Her silver-white hair cascaded down lean shoulders and back, its luster almost glowing in the brightly-lit chamber. Her very presence seemed to spread the aura of a sacred spirit — an enlightened soul beyond the attainment of any flawed mortal.
“Your… Holiness,” Lydia barely managed a whisper as her body subconsciously knelt down.
Grand Magistrate Kazimir raised an eyebrow before turning to his guest: “looks like she does recognize you.”
Lydia frowned as she looked back up in awe. How could he not feel that?
“Samarans have a greater gift than others at sensing karma, and some — like her — are especially perceptive.” Tara seemed to read Lydia’s thoughts as she reached out to help the young woman back up. “We’ve also met once before. Haven’t we?”
“Yes, Your Holiness,” Lydia’s gaze soon glistened with tears once more. “Thank you, for saving my family that day and introducing me to the joy of my life.”
“And I’m sorry for your loss,” Tara’s soothing voice came with a pained smile.
“Still… I’m glad I met him…”
Unable to maintain her poise as an officer, Lydia turned away to wipe her eyes. She bit more blood from her lips; now was not the time to reminisce past memories.
Meanwhile, Tara’s attention returned to the elderly noble:
“Now do you believe me, Grand Magistrate?”
“No?” Kazimir shook his head and sighed as well. It was the only concession he was willing to make to the ridiculous circumstances they were under. “Nonetheless, you have passed all seven of my trials. I would be a fool to not grant command to a seer so favored by the Gods.”
The Hyperborean cultures had a long tradition of female seers. They were seen as the instruments of Freyja — the Hyperborean Goddess of life, death, and magic — whose prophecies could bring either prosperity or ruin. The northern epics, carved into legend in great runestones, recorded the ill fates of rulers too proud to heed advice.
“Command?” Lydia looked between them in confusion, before her eyes widened in awe:
The Goddess of Mercy is personally intervening?
“Not me,” the Protectress announced, squashing her hopes. “The Invasion of Samara by an Eastling column yesterday has freed my hand. But I’m only allowed to intervene for four days.”
Allowed by whom? Lydia couldn’t help but wonder. Who could command the obedience of a Worldwalker, especially one who took part in the invasion of Hell itself during the legendary Dragon-Demon War?
Meanwhile, Tara nodded towards someone behind Lydia:
“He, will be taking command.”
Spinning around on her heels, Lydia’s gaze fell upon a man who was slowly pacing around the huge map table — a man who looked anything but a white knight or savior.
He was broad-shouldered and tall, a powerfully built Samaran with a muscular yet lean build just entering a man’s mature prime. His deep-blue eyes felt as sharp as an eagle’s gaze, which added to his high cheekbones and perfectly even nose made for a rather handsome visage. But his silver-white hair also looked like it hadn’t met water or brush for at least a week, while the jagged white beard that covered his chiseled chin seemed to have last been cut by an axe.
In other words, he looked like a vagrant barbarian. Smelled a bit like one too.
His wardrobe only made this impression worse, with its ill-tailored mishmash of wool and brocade that hardly matched. The only trend that could be discerned was a love of rich furs, which cloaked both shoulders and ran down his back and sides to just above his knees.
“What are you thinking?” The Grand Magistrate demanded. Not at Lydia, but at the strange man still circling the map table.
The entire room fell silent. Two dozen female staff officers, plus three war-maimed male veterans, all focused their unerring attention upon him.
“A map may tell a story, but it is hardly enough to judge the best means to conduct a war,” his deep voice began. “The politics of command, the personalities of leaders, the military culture of troops, the force composition that dictate battlefield flexibility, the equipment that decide both strengths and vulnerabilities, the doctrines that guide independence of action… All of these factors are instrumental to warfare. Every one of them is a deciding factor as important as terrain or numbers.”
He stared back in an imperious, expectant gaze, as though he was the one who led Polisia and not Kazimir.
“But the map tells me naught about any of these.”
The Grand Magistrate raised his eyebrows. He had clearly been expecting a more concrete answer.
“For example,” the man pointed towards the Frozen Fortress of Perym, with its adjacent marker that counted the number of besieged days. “How is it that the Great Khanate could sweep one city after another in the south, yet wash up against the walls of just one fortress in the north? The decisive defeat outside Perym reveals that the adversary is not an inferior force; they are neither demoralized nor spent.
“Then, just what is the defender’s secret? Because if not, then it was surely the attacker’s scheme.”
“The Chosen of Zirnitra,” Major Samusenko leaned towards the Grand Magistrate and muttered into his ears.
“…And while it is easy to claim,” the foreign man added. “Such difference in performance is rarely the cause of a single factor.”
The lady Major’s lips twitched and grew into a slight smirk. “And the Ice Labyrinth of the Perym Glacier,” she spoke openly this time, before adding begrudgingly: “they were also better prepared than most southern cities to begin with.”
“Men of harsh winters possess spirits tougher than steel,” the large man commented approvingly. “And a secret supply line certainly helps.”
“Not anymore,” Lydia exhaled. “They discovered it two months ago. Had to collapse the tunnels to stop an incursion. The fortress can still be supplied by air, but such runs are far more dangerous with air superiority contested.”
The strange man cocked an eyebrow, as though the very concepts of aerial resupply and combat was alien to him. However he did not voice a word and merely nodded as he absorbed the information.
Meanwhile, the Grand Magistrate revealed a thin smile. It seemed that the newcomer had at least passed his first test.
“Then, based on the information available, what do you consider to be your priority actions?”
The man stroked his hacked beard as he resumed pacing around the room.
“First – recruitment. Civilian morale will undoubtedly be low. Conscription may offer the numbers to sound impressive, but numbers alone are meaningless on the battlefield. Wars are won by motivated individuals, and for that we must take propaganda to new heights. Mobilize every resource yet untouched. Make sure that every man, woman, and child knows: the only alternative to fighting, is death.”
“Or a fate worse than,” Major Samusenko spat out. Disgust and hatred soaked her acidic tone: “Those barbarians rape women in our very city squares, even before the eyes of their own families.”
Almost everyone in the room visibly cringed. Lydia’s own breath caught as her vivid mind conjured an abhorrent scene that only strengthened her resolve to die fighting. Yet, the strange man didn’t show the slightest emotional change.
He merely raised his hand and pointed at the Major. “Make sure everyone knows that, in detail. Have their own daughters tell them if need be.”
Lydia’s jaw dropped as she envisioned her nine years old sister being taught to describe such unspeakable acts. What an abominable suggestion! She gawked as he resumed pacing as though this was all routine.
“Second – reorganize the army…”
“What army?” Captain Dolina blurted out in mockery. “We have to rebuild an army first! How are we to–”
She trailed off into silence as the Grand Magistrate cast her a freezing glare, as though admonishing know when to keep your mouth shut!
“One does not teach a child the wrong way to saddle before fixing the mistake,” the man declared. “Your consistent record of defeats reveals that the army composition, equipment, and squad tactics are inadequate for confronting the Easterners’ style of warfare. Such drastic differences show that our enemy originate from a higher arena of warfare: one that emphasize mobility and adaptability above all. Therefore, to match them in battle, we must first level the playing field.”
His unflappable expression then met Kazimir’s examining gaze:
“The recruits may finish basic training while I study your existing hierarchies and tactics. I will modify them to best counter the enemy’s, while keeping it similar enough to ease the officers’ transition. It should only take two weeks; three at most.”
Lydia nearly choked on air as her eyes swelled to gawking. You plan to restructure our entire military in under three weeks!?
“Three – rebuild the army, beginning with the officer corps,” he announced next. “The soldiers’ conduct stems from their captain. The captains’ behavior follows their general. To establish an army of discipline, I must choose the ripe and weed the rotten from atop the waterfall.”
The Grand Magistrated nodded in agreement, his emerald eyes beaming with growing confidence.
“And your biggest obstacle?”
The man’s sight swept around the room, before his eagle gaze stopped upon Lydia.
Excuse me? Lydia almost blurted out loud.
“Three crippled men, plus a whole command of sentimental women,” he scoffed. “You must have run out of warriors to use.”
Lydia’s expression froze over. She could sense dozens of narrowing gazes unite in enmity against that insolent man. The atmosphere among her staff officers grew icy, and they glanced towards her — their senior in the absence of Colonel Raskova — to defend their dignity. The weight of their expectations strengthened Lydia’s ire, but they also further strained her composure. And once again, she found herself edging towards an uncontrolled outburst.
Meanwhile, Kazimir’s lips tilted by the slightest hint, as though he was caught between a smile and a scowl. Instead, he settled for glancing at the Protectress standing beside him, entertained by the irony of her bringing such a candidate.
Tara, however, only smiled.
“I do not doubt a woman’s wisdom and sagacity,” the impudent man calmly added. “But compassion and prudence have no place on the fast-changing battlefield where men must be sacrificed in cold blood.”
“HOW DARE YOU accuse us of not being able to make sacrifices, when you know nothing… about ANYTHING that we’ve done!?” Lydia snarled back before she could stop herself.
For a brief moment the Grand Magistrate stared back in surprise. Clearly he had never expected such an inappropriate outburst from her.
The strange man, however, sneered at Lydia as though he thought her heaving anger was cute.
“Clearly, it was not enough.”
His words struck her with more pain than if she had been punched.
“Then perhaps you ought to summon an army of male ghosts to do your bidding, Sir!” She barely forced out between gritted teeth. “Because there aren’t many among the living who remain qualified and available!”
He did not respond this time, but began to stride around her like a tiger circling his prey, before turning towards the Protectress with mocking enthusiasm:
“No.” Tara simply stated. With her smile never faltering, she added in cool serenity: “I should remind you that I was known as the Grand Strategist during the Dragon-Demon Wars.”
Her smiling, spring-green gaze met Lydia’s once more, and the mere countenance of the Protectress seemed to bestow a much-needed breath of tranquility.
“The War of the Heavens, so you’ve told me,” the man replied. “And there’s a princess in my home country with beauty to match the moon, yet could throw down ten braves in succession. But she — like you — are the exceptional. Heroes,” he brought up a fist and clenched it before his chest in respect. “Not comparable with most of the weaker, feminine kind.”
Stopping behind Lydia, the man ran a hand beneath her waist-length hair. Her arm jerked in an attempt to bat his rough fingers away, but his muscular limb remained steady and barely moved. He pulled back only at his own leisure, and the long, white strands that ran down her back slid through his fingers like watery silk.
“Like this one — just how do you expect her to fight with hair this long?”
“Do you wear your battle armor to bed, Sir?” Lydia returned the challenge. “I knot and loosen my hair as I need it.”
She remained still with her back to him: a poor bluff of pretending to not be rattled by him.
“Want to wrestle me and see just how much it affects you?”
“I leave such brutish contests of strength to the men, Sir. I shot eighty-nine Eastlings dead in my last battle. Not one of them ever laid their hands on me.”
Lydia could feel the unknown man still leering at her. Her voice had remained unfazed, but the fists clenched by her thighs were shaking once more.
I can’t take this brute one minute longer!
She had enough. Enough of this insolent barbarian who did not even have the propriety to introduce himself first; who poured insults upon her sisters-at-arms despite not knowing anything about them.
Colonel where are you…? Lydia thought of her direct superior, praying for their speedy return. In the meantime, she turned to the Grand Magistrate and the Protectress:
“Your Excellency… Your Holiness!”
But before she could raise any objections, Tara stopped her with a raised hand.
“The real question is,” Kazimir asked with a tone of finality, his emerald eyes fixed upon the boorish man.
“Can you salvage this situation?”
As curiosity pulled Lydia’s eyes back around, she saw the strange man curl his lips into a faint but confident smirk.
“I once emerged from the Caucasus Mountains with a frostbitten and exhausted army that had no supplies, no reinforcements, and no path of retreat. We had been betrayed by local guides, trapped on hostile land, and surrounded by the Alans, Kipchaks, Cumens — a hostile coalition of tribes five times our size, all forewarned and prepared.”
He then declared with a certainty that most braggarts could only dream of:
“Compared to that, this is easy.”
Now he’s just plain boasting! Lydia exhaled a deep breath that she didn’t even realize she held. He just made up a bunch of names that don’t even exist! Besides, NOBODY could win a battle that unfair!
“Just who the hell are you, anyway!?” She challenged through her furrowed gaze.
His grin, however, only seemed to grow more predatory at her disbelief.
“I am the Hound of Temujin, the greatest of the Four. Destroyer of thirty-two nations. Conqueror of the oceanic plains from the Chinese Coast to the Blue Danube, from the Polar Ice to the Arabian Sea.”
“My name,” he announced at last, “is Subutai, the Valiant and Unfailing.”