Steven sat on top of the roof of his apartment in the residential region of the military camp of Firang that had been set aside for the Heavenly Wolf Mercenaries. The troops that had followed their Revered Ancestor numbered three hundred. Chosen from the elite members of the mercenaries, though their numbers were dwarfed by the Regiis soldiers, their battle strength wasn't negligible. None among their number were below Tier 2.
While the rest of the mercenaries, back within their territory, staved off the attacks of the ant legion on their end, this squad along with the Revered Ancestor herself would collaborate with the Firang contingent to hold the battle lines here.
He couldn't help but admire the political acumen of the Revered Ancestor.
By bringing a small contingent to aid Regiis, she had managed to draw most of the ant legion's attention towards Firang, thereby greatly reducing the pressure on the Heavenly Wolf Mercenaries guarding their territory. Three hundred soldiers, all above Tier 2 and a Tier 5 cultivator might seem impressive on paper, but when one considered that according to the scouts, after this morning's display, nearly half of the ant legion marching towards the Heavenly Wolf Mercenary territory had changed course to Firang...
As a subject of the Empire by birth and member of the Heavenly Wolf Mercenaries by marriage, he felt quite conflicted seeing his motherland get the raw end of the deal.
Having experienced the auras of two Tier 5 mages simultaneously erupting within the walls of the military encampment, the heretofore relentless Calamity had finally been daunted. Although their strategy was based upon the sacrifice of their lower Tier brethren to achieve victory, the ants weren't stupid enough to meaninglessly sacrifice their troops. They knew that even if they attacked now, they would yield no results.
If earlier, the defences had been like a sandy beach, each wave chipping a bit of it away, now, with the support of another Tier 5, it had become a rock. A rock that had dammed the tides of the fell beasts, stoppering their path to the interior of the Empire. The last bastion preserving the peaceful lives of the citizens from the ravages of war.
The legion, or at least the Tier 4 commander who had hidden itself within the Tier 3 ants, knew that despite their numerical advantage, they stood no chance. Even if they threw themselves at the wall now, either General Felidae or the Revered Ancestor could take up the duty of defence and simply switch with the other when they ran out of mana.
That was why, for the first time in days, the air wasn't buzzing with the wingbeats of thousands of aerial ants and the ground wasn't trembling under the march of the legion. It was a rare reprieve in the battle as the ants retreated a few kilometres and regrouped. It was also the calm before the storm.
The ants were ignorant of the concept of defeat. They would be back. This time with a Tier 5 ant queen by their side. That was when the true battle would begin.
Even now, their presence loomed over the encampment like a naked blade. Their very presence had changed the weather. Even in mid-winter, even at the high altitude of Firang, the breeze that blew was warm.
Steven watched the mercenaries bustle about, settling themselves into their new living spaces as fast as possible. While most of them were hardened veterans, unmindful of the spartan living conditions of the military barracks, some were scions of nobility and couldn't resign themselves to such ordinary dwellings.
No servants to take care of them? Here they were, graciously lending their aid to Regiis, and this was how they were treated? How preposterous!
Watching the dandies kick up a fuss put a frown on his face. once again, he was reminded of the cultural differences of Regiis and Huaxia. Nobility in Regiis was earned, not bestowed. A peasant could ascend to the position of nobility, a noble could lose his title. Therefore, the entire social class was covered by an atmosphere of cut throat competition. To stay ahead of others, every minute and every second was to be utilized to its fullest. Competence was demanded of every noble scion. They had very little time away from their training to develop their ego.
In sharp contrast, Huaxia ascribed to an ossified power structure. Commoners were commoners. Nobles were nobles. Rise channel? Equal opportunity? What was that?
Even the most talentless shmuck among the Huaxian cultivator nobility could enjoy resources a Regiis scion would have to fight tooth and nail over. They attained too much with too little effort to truly appreciate what they had.
Their absolute social position meant that they could lord it over anyone below them in the hierarchy. And indeed, the lives of the peasants were in the palm of their hands, to do with as they pleased. Wherever they went, they would be greeted by bent knees and lowered heads.
In the face of such disparity in status, the peasants had adapted their own mechanism for survival. Flattery and absolute obedience to their superiors. Give them no reason to want your head and it will remain firmly on your shoulders – at least, until the young masters and young misses just decided that beheading you was a fine way to pass their time.
Steven had spent the final three months at the Heavenly Wolf Mercenary territory as the unofficial consort of their future Alpha. He had experienced the heady rush of superiority of having someone older and stronger kneel to him. Those noble fops grew up in that kind of environment, in echo chambers where all they heard was praise. It didn't surprise Steven one bit that they had turned out conceited and self-entitled.
Under the prestige of the Revered Ancestor, they hadn't been able to protest the decision to leave their huge trains of servants and concubines back home to expedite travel time, but now that they were on Regiis soil and perceptive of their present situation as them doing the Empire a favour, they felt entitled to demand the comforts they were used to.
One thing confused Steven greatly though. Only the ones at Tier 2 had brought their wives along, the Tier 3 mages had come singly.
In Huaxia, while women weren't barred from cultivation, they were considered the guardians of hearth and home. The men were the ones who went to war. While Hei Lian had plans of introducing some changes when she had consolidated her position as the Alpha, she hadn't had the time or clout to do anything much till the present. As such, the Tier 3's leaving their wives at home wasn't something difficult to understand.
But, it raised the question: How did they prevent the women from turning Feral when they went to war, leaving them behind? Surely, they didn't lock them up for the entire duration to keep them in check.
Did they have some sort of method to stave off the Feral transformation without intercourse? That would allow them greater range of motion in their missions. If a husband and wife were able to move separately, it would make their mode of operation more flexible. Was this method some sort of secret inheritance of the Heavenly Wolf Mercenaries? Or was it known to Regiis as well?
A worrying thought struck him. If Hei Lian was aware of such a method, did it mean that the day he promoted to Tier 3 would be the day she stopped sharing his bed? A warm breeze ruffled his hair as he absentmindedly stared into the distance. Only his lashing tail spoke of the agitation within.
Inhaling deeply, he breathed out slowly. Along with the stale air, he exhaled doubt. He came to a decision.
Before he could think too deeply about the decision and lose his courage, he shadow-walked away from the roof, reappearing out of a shadow cast by the apartment in an alley. Firming his resolve, he made his way to his destination.
All the way, his sensitive ears picked up the muffled discussions of the soldiers. They spoke of the Calamity, of the turncoat Duchess and of the alliance with the Heavenly Wolf Mercenaries. But what they spoke of the most was the heroes who would emerge from amongst them the next night.
While opinions varied on whether the mission would succeed, with the more pessimistic of the bunch claiming that 'martyr' would be a better fit for the 'foolish' men and women who volunteered to march into the depths of the Forbidden Zone, their respect for any and all who stepped up was unquestionable.
As for their thoughts on allying with the mercenaries… Disdain was in the majority, with hostility and goodwill warring for the second position. The demands of the 'young masters' certainly hadn't made it easier for them to put aside hundreds of years of animosity.
Steven finally stopped his footsteps at the end of the street that led to his destination. General Felidae's office stood in front of him, the door slightly ajar.
It hadn't actually been his office prior to this day. In fact, he never had a separate office, working out of his home or the command centre. But, today, a residential building halfway between the mercenary quarters and the command centre had been converted into his 'office' for the specific purpose of receiving the volunteer applications. To show his respect to the volunteers, he had decided to accept their applications personally.
The thought of having to face him nearly made Steven lose his resolve, but the memory of the feel of Hei Lian's lips on his sewed his feet to the ground, refusing to let him retreat.
Clenching his teeth, he gathered his courage and took the step that would change his life.
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