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 as everyone 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 dozen sharp intakes could be heard around the room. One of which came from the twenty-one 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 by the invaders’ northern force.
Lydia clenched her 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 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 going as white as chalk.
“Healer, HEALER! WE NEED A HEALER!”
A young Samaran woman clad in white robes with red lines soon ran into the war room. She crouched down next to the Marshal and pulled out a runic tablet with straps for her hand. Cyan rays of light burst from the stone as she began to channel a biomedical scanning spell. They formed a cocoon of brilliance that soon engulfed the patient.
Lydia then remembered as he was being treated: 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.
“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!”
Their words did ring with truth. After two-and-a-half years and dozens of devastating 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 dazed eyes and stiff hands, 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 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 the local 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. Demoralized, Sarkel capitulated within weeks, only to meet the butcher’s blade as the Eastlings razed it in a great conflagration.
…It marked the beginning of the nightmare times.
In the following two years, the Eastling invasion steadily torched its way across the Polisian lands. The Principalities of Seym, Oka, Dnipro, and Boh 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.
There was just one exception: the Protectorate of Perym’s Frozen Fortress held out longer than anyone could have expected — nearly four hundred days to date. The last available Polisian field army had been sent to break the siege before supplies ran out. But now, with its destruction, only a short time remained until the stronghold’s inevitable fall.
To make matters worse, news had arrived early this week that a third Eastling column had invaded the lightly-defended Protectorate of Samara — the only member of the Federation to lack a fortress-city. To almost everyone inside the Coalition Central Command, this triple thrust spelled Polisia’s final end.
“That… was our last chance,” a hopeless mutter emerged from the table’s other side. It came from Captain Nataliya, who had once fought through hell as 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 as bittersweet images drift across her mind:
…When she watched Aleksei smile as they stood before the Hyperborean priestess, calming her nerves as they exchanged wedding rings from the tips of silver swords. They symbolized his protection and her devotion, sworn vows to one another that should have lasted a lifetime.
…When she blushed back at Aleksei on that sunny morning, naked beneath the sheets after she finally gave herself to him. He had waited three years before she agreed at last, never once pushing her despite his peers’ ridicule. To repay that courtesy, she would willingly give up one of her freedoms as a Samaran.
…When she stood next to Aleksei at the Ilmen Academy’s entrance, anticipating years of higher learning that she never imagined of. Only nobles and wealthy yeomen could normally afford such privileges. It was the chance of a lifetime that she was forever grateful for.
…When she waved goodbye at Aleksei with glistening eyes, after sharing one last kiss before he mounted to ride off. He looked quite handsome in the polished armor of a demi-lancer lieutenant, despite leaving his best uniform behind and promising her that he would retrieve it upon his return.
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.
What did Aleksei and his brothers die for then!? 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 near 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?”
“So have we!” Lydia reprimanded them all. “Did you all forget!? The Grand Prince had three envoys beheaded for their insolence. Since then, our armies have resisted them in the field again… and again!”
It wasn’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 still shaking as she looked up. Her countenance showed a stark contrast between the embers that still 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 shattered units 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–!”
The noisy chatter that filled the room came to a sudden halt as the heavy oak doors crashed open and a man’s voice burst forth.
“WHO IS IN COMMAND HERE!?”
Lydia shook her head and wiped her tear-stained cheeks.
“I am, Your Excellency!” She 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 Sheksna 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 though an emblem of true wisdom.
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 always helped to steel her nerves and stay in control.
“Yes, Your Excellency,” Lydia bowed her head in deference.
The Grand Magistrate did not come alone either.
To Kazimir’s left stood Major Mariya Samusenko, a young, blond lady 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 inferior being was between them two. Though the 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 sapphire-blue eyes twinkled as though revealing a pleasant surprise. Her silver-white hair cascaded down her 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?
“Some Samarans have a greater gift than others at sensing karma,” 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 eyes 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…”
As Lydia turned away to wipe her eyes, 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. “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.”
“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 has freed my hand. But I’m only allowed to intervene for three 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 like anything but a white knight or savior.
He was broad-shouldered and tall, a healthy Samaran with a lean and muscular build at the height of a man’s early 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 blue-tinged white hair also looked like it hadn’t met water or brush for at least a week, while his jagged beard seemed to have last been cut by a bardiche 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 mishmash of wool and brocade that hardly matched. The only trend that could be discerned was a love of rich furs, which adorned both shoulders and ran down his back and sides to just above his knees.
Why isn’t he in uniform? Lydia immediately thought. There were few reasons for a man as fit as him to not be in the military already.
“What are you thinking?” The Grand Magistrate asked. 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 unit composition that dictate battlefield flexibility, the equipment that decide both strengths and vulnerabilities, the doctrines that guide independence of action, the intelligence that influence strategic analysis… 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; that 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 to mutter into his ears.
“…And while it is easy to claim,” the unknown man added. “Such difference in performance is rarely the cause of a single factor.”
The Major’s lips twitched. “And the Ice Labyrinth of the Perym Glacier,” she spoke openly this time.
“A secret supply line,” he tilted one eyebrow. “That certainly helps.”
“Not anymore,” Lydia exhaled. “They discovered it two months ago. Had to collapse the tunnels to stop the incursion.”
The Grand Magistrate revealed a thin smile. It seemed that the young man 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 by the sword may give us the numbers, but not the motivation. 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 city squares, even before the eyes of their own families.”
Almost everyone in the room visibly cringed, yet the young man didn’t show the slightest emotional change.
He merely raised his hand and pointed at the Major. “Make sure everyone knows that.”
Lydia then watched, speechless, as he resumed pacing as though this was all routine.
“Second – reorganize the army…”
“What army?” Captain Nataliya blurted out in mockery. “We have to rebuild an army first!”
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 record of defeats shows 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. 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 your officers’ transition. It should only take two weeks; three at most.”
Lydia almost 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 select 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 spoke out loud.
“Three crippled men, plus a whole command of sentimental women,” he scoffed. “You must have run out of warriors to use.”
Kazimir’s lips tilted by the slightest hint, as though he was caught between a smile and a scowl. Instead, he settle 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 young man calmly added. “But compassion and prudence have no place on the fast-changing battlefield where men must be sacrificed in cold blood.”
Lydia’s expression froze over. How DARE you accuse us of not being able to make sacrifices, when you know nothing… about anything that we’ve done!?
Meanwhile, Major Samusenko simply put on the veil of a thin smile.
“Then perhaps you should summon an army of male ghosts to do your bidding, Sir,” Lydia’s icy glare followed him. “Because there aren’t many among the living who remain qualified and available.”
The man sneered at Lydia as though he thought this was cute. He 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 then added in cool composure: “I should remind you that I was known as the Grand Strategist during the Dragon-Demon Wars.”
“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 hair. 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 his challenge, her back never turning away from him. “I knot and loosen my hair as I need it.”
“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 even 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 beginning to tremble once more.
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 — many of whom had fought their way out of hell in the grisly bloodbath known as the Battle of Desna.
“Your Excellency… Your Holiness!”
Lydia turned to the Grand Magistrate and the Protectress. 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 are you, anyway?” She challenged through her narrowed 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 states. 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.”