"Let not your prowess shine like a candle in the street, for it will burn out quickly.  Keep it silent, hidden, and use it sparingly, only when most needed."

On the 10th of the 10th, when the sky had just brightened, a horn blared lowly across Falik Plains. One tower of smoke rose after another amidst the camp’s forest of tents.

A fog rose from the rivers as dawn broke. The men screamed, cursed, and yelled. Metal clashed, horses neighed, and sounds of all kinds mixed together in a chaotic ensemble.

The day had come. Duke Cobleit woke early, or, more accurately, had yet to sleep. The day’s battle would decide both Unions’ fate. He couldn’t afford neglect. Stress weighed on him eternally. He had the advantage in numbers, so he could not understand why the enemy would choose to confront them on the field, in the open, where the terrain offered no advantage to either side. But he knew Duke Norton was no idiot, he would not do this without reason.

All the intelligence said House Norton only had three legions and a brigade of knights to field. They should number just 150 thousand at best. Cobleit didn’t count the Free Union troops of Whitelion legion, which King Andinaq had sent as reinforcements, they were not worth much and could not change the outcome of the battle.

House Norton was his true enemy. However, they had remained in their camp for the whole month. While the higher-ups wouldn’t claim they knew the Nortons inside out, they knew their specialties. House Norton had the advantage when it came to ranged weaponry. They used steel ballistae and catapults to break up their opponents’ formations before charging in with cavalry. This was how Tigersoar had defeated their 100 thousand reinforcements in Kanbona with only 40 thousand.

The mere thought of House Norton’s ballistae and catapults infuriated Cobleit. The big-six restored Wessia so they could produce House Norton’s weapons from the blueprints they’d stolen. It wasn’t that Twinhead Dragon didn’t want to just abandon them. It couldn’t, because the other five merchant guilds didn’t want to. Their compromise was to reform Wessia, this time, however, each of the guilds owned a tenth of Wessia just like they did Invincible.

Despite that, the new guild still disappointed. They had the real ballistae and catapults, but they couldn’t forge the same elastic steel. They spent over 500 thousand gold Fordes but the research still failed. They only produced barely functional arms that couldn’t compare.

Luckily they could counter the enemy’s ballistae with shield carts. Only the catapults were trouble. House Norton were experts at combining the two weapons in combat. The Trade Union’s forces had brainstormed many countermeasures, but only two were reliable. They were the elastic shield-carts, and long-armed trebuchets.

The elastic shield-carts were the result of a spark of inspiration from the carpenters that built the normal shield-carts. Normal giant shield-carts were mainly used to defend against ballista bolts, so they had to be firm. But that made them useless against rocks. In fact, the harder they were, the easier they broke. One of the carpenters had the bright idea of using bamboo, an elastic material, to support the shields. Not only did it increase its strength, but also made it possible to stop medium rocks. Heavy rocks were still a problem though.

With most of the ranged weapons nullified, they could rely on high tiers to eliminate enemy commanding officers and destroy their command infrastructure. They’d crumble soon after. The only problem was that they still had to cover a great distance under fire and casualties were unavoidable.

So far, the best way to stop the enemy’s catapults was their long-armed trebuchets. They could launch stones up to 30 kilograms 400 meters. They fired slower and couldn’t be moved, but they could match the enemy’s range and keep them at occupied. He did not hope they could defeat the enemy catapults, he just wanted them to divert attention away from his forces as they closed in.

The old times were far better... We’d just meet on the field and charge at one another. We might shoot a few volleys of arrows before we engaged in close quarters, but things were nice and simple. House Norton has ruined everything. We can’t get even get close to them normally. We’d just get wiped out as we approached. Even fighting from city walls is little better. They just smash the walls down over a couple of days and storm in...

“Please enjoy your meal, Your Grace,” said his attendant as he served breakfast.

Cobleit didn’t have much of an appetite. He took a few bites and fiddle around with the rest for a few minutes before giving up.

“Sollerson, anything happening on the other side?”

Sollerson was his trusted attendant. The man had been by his side for 20 years. He trusted the man implicitly.

“No, Your Grace. Apart from the mound they built two days ago, nothing has happened. The scouts said they have started to cook.”

The enemy built a small mound five kilometers from Bluwek, but nothing had happened since. The higher-ups thought they were setting up defensive fortifications, but it didn’t really seem like it. Cobleit couldn’t understand what Duke Norton was thinking. Maybe he wanted to use it to give him a better view of the battle? It certainly couldn’t be used for anything else. Some had suggested that he might want to use it to increase his catapults’ range, but it wasn’t tall enough to make much of a difference.

“You can have the rest,” Cobleit said generously, “What time is it?”

“Just before seven, Your Grace.”

“Make me a cup of tea and give the signal to sortie. It is time for our grand battle. We must make preparations early. Make sure the troops are in formation in two hours.”

“As you wish, Your Grace.”

“Has Master Magrut woken up yet? What’s the situation?”

The windstorm swordsaint arrived in with ten disciples three days earlier. After meeting him and the rest, he excused himself and wanted to set up his tent somewhere clean to rest. But where would they find a clean place in a military camp? Cobleit had no choice but to have ten tents taken down and moved to make space for the swordsaint. He even stationed guards around his tent to stop anyone from disrupting his rest.

“Master Magrut’s disciples are outside. They were just asking for breakfast. We didn’t see Master Magrut. We don’t know if he’s awake.”

Cobleit nodded.

“Since his disciples are here, Master Magrut will join them soon. Make sure the men are respectful and do whatever he asks. Master Magrut is the key to our victory today. We can’t mess things up. I won’t forgive anyone who upsets him.”

“Understood. I will make sure everyone is careful.”

Cobleit waited anxiously for their swordsaint to arrive. His eldest disciple came by near nine. Count Bolyde was the windstorm swordsaint’s eldest disciple, an arrogant bastard. He cared little for merchant wannabe nobles. He conveniently forgot that his own title was defunct along with Kalia, the kingdom that had given it to him.

“Lord Duke, I am here to get a pass,” said Count Bolyde.

“What’s going on?” asked Cobleit.

“My master will now leave for the duel grounds. I am here to get a pass to prove my and my fellow disciples’ identities so we may attend.”

“Huh? Wasn’t Master Magrut going to duel Duke Norton on the battlefield? He’s choosing another location?” asked Duke Chikdor.

Bolyde shot the duke a disdainful glare.

“You think Master is like your subordinates who want to duel in the middle of the battle to show off? Please understand, a duel between two swordsaints is sacred. Only those dedicated to the arts and chosen by the swordsaints themselves may be witness! Do you really think it’s just two people swinging swords at each other? If you don’t know what’s going on, don’t mouth off unnecessarily! Master issued the challenge and set the date, so the venue is naturally up to Duke Norton. We came here to get a pass to head to the other side so we can go to the grounds together.”

“But... But today’s the date of our battle...”

Duke Chikdor’s embarrassment turned to rage.

“If the date is so fixed, then fight it. House Norton has three centuries behind it. They will not break their promises even if their lord is absent. You go do your battle and Master will duel Duke Norton. Neither has anything to do with the other.”

These merchants want to come watch the duel just to make sure Master does not slack off!

“Haha, Lord Bolyde, we naturally know this is the day of our battle. We haven’t deployed yet was because we were worried we would steal the show. The duel is an eye-catching event. Our battle is nothing but a side show. Duke Chikdor is waiting with us because he is worried our battle will affect the duel. Since it won’t, there’s no issue. Sollerson, give the count my insignia and accompany him,” said Cobleit as he came to Duke Chikdor’s rescue.

“Thank you, Lord Duke,” Bolyde replied, turning stiffly and leaving, Sollerson jogging to keep up.

“Alright, gentlemen, it seems we don’t have to worry about the duel. Go and get our troops ready. You all know what our plans are, so let us not waste time and breathe reiterating them. Hold ranks, stick to the plan, obey any orders I might give, and fight bravely! By Singwa, this victory will be ours!”

“By Singwa! Victory! Victory!” responded the tent.

Horns reverberated across the plains as the Trade Union’s forces set off. House Norton responded in kind. The rumbling of drums jumped in and set the pace as the two forces marched towards one another, each’s cloud of dust obscuring the horizon for the other.

Bolyde, who had just rode out of camp, was shocked to hear the horn and cursed, but nobody heard him. The two armies were only kilometers apart and Bolyde and Sollerson were held up by a few light cavalry scouts when they were a kilometer away from the Norton camp. After checking their identification, the scouts took their weapons and escorted them to their lord.

Bolyde dismounted respectfully and gave his greetings before giving a noble salute and explaining his presence.

Lorist gazed at the map and picked a few remote locations. This was a duel between swordsaints after all, not just anybody could watch. The windstorm swordsaint was right about that. In the end, Lorist settled on Lone Peak.

Lone Peak was the mountain nearest Bluwek, around 5 kilometers away. Its name came from its isolation. It towered above the gently rolling hills of the region, reaching for the sky, alone.

Bolyde returned with the location. Fanfare echoed across the gap between the armies as the Union sent their swordsaint off. Lorist left his side quietly, followed only by Reidy and Jinolio.

Cobleit breathed a sigh of relief when his scouts reported Lorist’s departure. Looking at the murderous Norton soldiers in the distance, he waved and ordered in a deep voice, “Blow the horn! We move as planned! Begin our attack!”