"A commander that can only come up with three ways to deal with a given situation is either inept or has the wrong morals." ~ Duke Fisablen

Auguslo spent the month-long rainy season with a constant gloom on his face. The news Lorist had brought had already unnerved him so much he didn't have an apatite and couldn't sleep. Then there was the failed attack on Handra.  Suffice to say, even being a rank 1 blademaster, his teeth stung like a shard of bone had found its way beneath the enamel.

The herbalist that had just left had infuriated him even more. It took considerable effort not to just end the man right then and there. The man just shrugged, there was nothing he could do to ease or relieve the pain. It was nerves and stress, not anything related to the teeth themselves. In herbal medicine, toothache was a huge problem. Unlike normal bodily diseases. which one bottle of concoction could usually solve, there was only one way to deal with a toothache: tooth extraction. However, it left the unfortunate patient with fewer teeth. Dental filling was unheard of.

Auguslo opted to keep his teeth. A king was not truly a king if he didn't have a full smile. It wasn't that there wasn't a solution; a tooth from a dead person could be extracted and implanted in the lost tooth's place on social occasions -- many nobles resorted to this -- but the thought of putting a dead man's tooth in one's mouth only to remove it before a meal to avoid accidentally swallowing it... wasn't exactly invigorating.

With no other options available -- or allowed -- the herbalist left to prepare some general purpose anti-inflammatory solutions. Auguslo was in so much pain he'd have given the herbalist a beating had he been able to say something properly.

Why, in the world of medicine, where ruptured organs aren't a big deal, is a simple toothache such a pain?! What's this bullshit about teeth being the crystallization of human bones and different from the other parts of the body... He's just making shit up to cover his incompetence! I really shouldn't have spent so much money feeding him!

Looking at the Morantian newspapers Lorist had brought, Auguslo felt his lucky stars were really misaligned. Though the four duchies' collapse was within his grasp and his ambition of reunifying the empire seemed achievable, his biggest enemy, the Union, actually managed to recruit a swordsaint. With a swordsaint supporting the nation, could he send his troops to reclaim the provinces? If he were to give up on them, though, would the reunification ever truly be achieved? Would he be able to claim that he was the ruler that reunited the empire?

Meanwhile, Lorist was accompanying Shazin to check out the battlefield. After the rainy season, Lorist stayed at Ragebear for half a month until Auguslo had sent three messengers asking him to get a move on, prompting him to unwillingly mobilize Tigersoar. He handed the king a few reports from Morante about the Union's recruitment of a swordsaint.

After checking the defenses, he understood why the king was so distraught. At first, Lorist was quite unwilling to mobilize his forces, as using heavy-armored infantry was the way to go in hilly terrain. Tigersoar was a cavalry unit and they couldn't play too huge a part in such a fight. But upon seeing the battlefield himself, he finally understood that the king didn't need his cavalry, but rather, the legion's thunderbolt and carroballista brigades.

When Lorist arrived at the frontlines, it was already the 21st day of the 5th month. After the rainy season, Auguslo led his troops of 200 thousand men into Handra's province, Wesstwood. At first, it went really smooth and a quarter of the territory was conquered. They were soon held back on the Welony mountain pass, however, and lost a few battles in a row. So, they had to borrow Tigersoar's ranged forces to suppress the defenders, hence the messengers' hurried beckoning.

"This battle won't be easy," said Lorist.

That true. Wesstwood, as its name suggested, was a province covered in hills and forests. It was also rather large. In the common tongue, 'wesst' was used to describe mountainous areas. Cloudsnap near Egret Swamp actually stretched all the way from Kanbona to Wesstwood. It crossed five provinces altogether. Though it was one of the mountain range's ends, it was covered with dense forests, making it hard to attack and easy to defend. The first prince had led 200 thousand men in his invasion of the duchies, only to be stopped in Wesstwood. Many battles were lost during the two years of conflict there. But the first prince had attacked from the south northwards while Auguslo was doing so in the opposite direction.

Welony pass was the true endpoint of Cloudsnap. Its terrain was a little similar to Pispir pass, in which stood Pedro, but the opening was far wider at about five kilometers. While it was wide, the cliffs on either side were incredibly steep, exposing the attacking side to great risk. It was exceedingly disadvantageous.

From the telescope, was clear that the Handra garrison was using the same trench and mud wall network. They also constructed a lot of archer towers, though. There were also a lot of ruined shield carts laid all over the network, with the ground around it bloodied and crimson. It was probably the blood shed by the attacking soldiers. There were also a lot of bumps and potholes of varying size dotting the slope.

"Look at those two areas poking out on the slope," said Shazin.

"What are they?"

Lorist pointed the telescope where Shazin had pointed and saw a row of man-made crane-like contraptions on tall wooden structures.

"Catapults," Shazin replied, "When His Majesty deployed the catapults to cover Whitelion's march, he didn't think the enemy would be prepared. Those weird wooden buildings with long arms are actually catapults. Though their range isn't as great as ours', given their elevation, they have the advantage in terms of terrain. Whitelion's assault suffered a hideous loss and huge casualties. Even ten of His Majesty's catapults were ruined."

Catapults? So Handra has already come up with a lever contraption. The wooden buildings below the arms must be to hide the lever. Hehe, so they're pretty secretive.

Lorist counted around 40 wooden towers on one side. There were near a hundred in total on both sides.

"How heavy are the rocks they throw? How far can they reach?"

"More or less the size of a human head, around 20 kilograms. They can be thrown around 300 meters at most. The catapults His Majesty sent were shot down at around that range. His Majesty even threw a tantrum and said the catapults you gave him were defective and couldn't fire as far as the enemies'. That's because, when the enemy started using their catapults to attack us, our catapults also retaliated. But our rocks all fell short."

Lorist snorted lightly.

"Defective products? Props to him for daring to say that. He didn't even think about how we're fighting a literal uphill battle. The enemy has the high ground which means they have a great advantage. Given the difference in elevation, it's no wonder our catapults don't fire as far."

"Yeah. His Majesty also realized this a little later. He tried a night attack but failed because the enemy was on ready. Right now, it's exactly the opposite of how it was in Forund. We dominated and Forund's garrison had to attack at night to retake the land they lost in the day. Now, however, with the hundreds of catapults up there, the day is now their domain. We have no way of launching an attack."

Those hundred catapults were a grave threat. They had to dodge rocks whenever they were in range. Their chances of victory were all but zero.

"Did His Majesty try attacking somewhere else?"

"It's useless," Shazin said, shaking his head, "This is the flattest terrain in the pass. I've already checked everywhere else and it's all worse than this. Some passes circle around smaller hills, even more beneficial to the defenders. The large pass here is the main highway between the duchies and the smallest threat. We didn't think Handra would install so many catapults."

"What is the enemy's disposition?"

"Our scouts and the few prisoners we caught, the pass is defended by Handra's Reddragon. Together with Whitedragon, Reddragon is one of the two standing legions, and, just like Whitedragon, it has 24 thousand men. They are divided into two divisions and another brigade. They're known as the Twin Dragon Legion, though they always fight independently. Currently, Reddragon has four divisions guarding the pass, eight thousand men in each. There's also another logistics brigade of three thousand. All-in-all, we face 35 thousand.

"The eastern part of Cloudsnap is defended by Forund's first legion, Matnamady in the west is held by Farkel's Forestmont. We don't know where the rest are. Altogether, we face 130 thousand men."

Shazin was quite well-informed.

Lorist pointed at the distant, foggy Matnamady stream.

"Has our king not thought of attacking there?"

Shazin smiled bitterly.

"Of course, and it cost me one regiment of elite light infantry scouts. Matnamady sits on mountainous terrain; there's no way to bypass it. There are a number of streams in the area, which completely lock down any possible bypass route. Farkel's Forestmont only has to occupy a few strategic points to make it hard for us to escape. I sent a regiment of elite scouts to reconnoiter the area... less than three hundred returned."

"Isn't the Nibarak river beyond Matnamady? It connects Handra's inner land, Deramak province, right? Has His Majesty considered sending an assault for that way?"

"It's useless. Duke Fisablen suggested that move, but even he lost almost a whole light cavalry division," Shazin sighed, "Handra has long made preparations. Duke Fisablen recruited some worksmiths and constructed countless wooden boards to head down along Nibarak. He didn't think Handra would install chain blockades at three turning points of Matnamady.

"In an attempt to launch a surprise attack, Duke Fisablen didn't send anyone to scout, fearing it would alert the enemy. In the end, the grassland barbarians were sent down the stream only to be stopped by the chains. The troops standing guard on shore hurriedly called for reinforcements and shot flaming arrows and fireballs at the river while dumping fuel into the water. They then set it alight and everything burned. The legion lost 10 thousand men."

Duke Fisablen is really unlucky. The division he lost was burnt alive without harming a single hair on the enemy.

After indulging in schadenfreude, his expression darkened as he thought back to how he had promised the king he would come up with a method to attack the defenses they now faced.

I'm really dumb. Why did I have to mock them for being stranded here? Auguslo's words got on my nerve and I promised confidently I would come up with a way to conquer the duchy…  Remind me to never get drunk when the king's near ever again. I really let myself get into a horrible corner this time...

"Show me if there're any weaknesses, Hennard."

Three days later, the herbalist's concoction began to take effect. While Auguslo's tooth still hurt badly, the inflammation subsided and he could speak normally again. With a hint of frustration, the king called for a military council to discuss how they could break through their current predicament.

"Locke, last time you told me you'd find a way to take Welony pass. Have you come up with anything yet?" asked he the moment everyone was present.

Who asked you to bring Tigersoar over so unwillingly? You even said you were busy migrating the refugees and bragged about how you'd solved my problem with the mountain legion and wanted to rest for the winter. You even said Tigersoar wouldn't fight without you present. You're really vexing.

Duke Fisablen even explained how perfect the fortifications are. But you bragged that there was no such thing as a flawless defense and that we just hadn't noticed its weakness... I bet you just had a little too much to drink. You didn't leave before giving me the newspapers and kicking off my toothache… You forced me to suffer all this pain!

If you can't come up with a way to take the pass, I'll mock you into your grave! Who asked you to run your mouth?

Lorist raised three fingers.

"Please forgive my incompetence. I could only come up with three ways to take care of the situation."