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Dragons of the Four Kingdoms

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China, 189AD


It was a time of great turmoil. A succession of young Emperors had left the imperial power weakened and under the controlling influence of the court eunuchs during the past 80 years. Wide-scale rebellions in the past decade in particular had forced Emperor Ling to grant direct administrative authority of provinces to local governors, which had led to many of them cutting off all ties to the Imperial court and ruling their regions as their own kingdoms.


After General-in-chief He Jin was killed whilst attempting to have the eunuchs executed to end their corrupt influence, Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu's forces massacred the eunuchs and their supporters during a climactic struggle in which the capital of Luoyang burned. Ultimately Dong Zhuo, who had been previously summoned with his substantial army to aid in the plotting against the eunuchs, stormed the capital and seized control in the interests of ending the destructive chaos.


However, it was soon discovered that Dong Zhuo's true motive was to seize power. Liu Bian was deposed from the throne, and Dong Zhuo appointed the younger brother Liu Xie as Emperor Xian. Of course, Emperor Xian was still a boy too young to rule, and so Dong Zhuo presided as Prime Minister, holding the true control of the imperial power. A vile and unmannerly man, he ruled as a hated dictator. Many attempts to assassinate him failed, leaving the court in despair. 


It was at this time that the various regional governors and officials began to form a coalition with the goal of overthrowing Dong Zhuo. Powerful officials such as Yuan Shao and Yuan Shu were among them, and many others, such as Jiang Mu, were invited to join...



Jiang Mu set down the wooden letter on his desk and extended his hand outward, gesturing to his assembled advisors. "Well, let me hear your opinions then. Shall we join this coalition?"


Neng Ma stepped forward. He was young and eager, and often the first to offer a suggestion. "Definitely. We must be part of it. If they succeed and we did not lend a hand, where will we stand as they arrange power?"


The general Tu Zan supported it heartily, "I agree. Our army is ready, we are in the prime of our strength - no better time for some battling!"


"But what if they fail?" Ji Wen asked. He was the eldest of Jiang Mu's advisors, and had long served the previous governor, Jiang Mu's father.


"They surely cannot fail. The most powerful governors have gathered already, their force will surely outnumber Dong's." Neng Ma replied confidently.


Lian Tai, another of the younger generation of advisors, and frequent competitor to Neng Ma, disagreed. "Victory cannot be certain so early. It is exactly because they are powerful lords that they may fail. They'll all have their eyes on power. They won't spend their armies and resources and gain nothing from it. They'll seek to improve their holdings through this war, and that means they won't cooperate fully."


"Lian Tai sees the long and short of things." Ji Wen approved.


Neng Ma was not quite satisfied yet though. "Perhaps so, but it also means we may benefit similarly. With our dominance of the skies, we will have a strong position to make gains."


"If they don't send us in first, using their greater authority, until our forces are dwindled beyond repair; leaving them to deal the final blows and claim the greatest contribution and rewards." Lian Tai shot back.


At this point, Zhong Kun stepped forward, holding out a hand to settle his colleagues. As the second-most senior advisor, he had long proven to be level-headed and well able to keep the peace among the more ambitious advisors. "Perhaps we are getting too far ahead of ourselves. We can always drop out of the coalition if it does not prove to benefit us. The only decision we must make today is whether we are with the coalition or against them."


Jiang Mu stood up. "Indeed, Zhong Kun gets straight to the point. All your advices are worth consideration as we proceed, but for the time being, I have decided we must accept the invitation to join the coalition. I do not wish to be considered an ally of Dong Zhuo by refusing to help combat him. Send word of my acceptance, and assemble our forces to march. I shall conduct an inspection tomorrow, and we will set forth the day after."

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It had all started with a drunken challenge to best a dragon.

Ma Yan had been in the Beauty Lake Tavern again – his favourite haunt – with his close friends. They were talking and laughing loudly and slamming barrel after barrel of wine on the table. He had forgotten the finer details, but sometime during their hearty conversation the flush-faced Zhang Wu had declared that no man was a hero till he had beaten a grown dragon with his bare fists.

Ma Yan had stood up and slammed the table with a gnarled, hairy paw.

“I’ll do just that!†he had barked, his low voice reverberating throughout the tavern, and all customers had momentarily lowered their bowls to stare at him. “I shall go out there and bring you a dead dragon!â€

This was the story of how Ma Yan became the Martial Hero of Xiliang.

He had returned a day later, battered and scarred, but with a proud smile on his face, for he had not only lived up to his promise, but surely surpassed it, for by his side was an adult dragon, a beautiful Wood Dragon, walking placidly with its head down, a scent of wild flowers emanating through the air. He had not killed it, but he had done the unthinkable and subdued it for himself!

“How can this be?†people asked. Feral dragons were never known to conform to the wishes of civilization, let alone individual humans. The only known way – it was even quoted in the Heavenly Annals – of enlightening a dragon was to do it straight from the egg, educating it the ways of Goodness and Moral Living, and teaching it the local tongue. Of course, in such times of war, few had the time or patience to do this when their own lives and those of their families were at stake, so dragons had been taught with much less care and discipline, and focused a heavier weightage on war.

But it was a good thing that this dragon was not slain. Her name was Long Mu Xue, declared Ma Yan proudly, and her bodily fragrance sent a stirring of hope throughout the town, where men were conscripted or forced into battles, and the atmosphere of death lingered through the air. And Muxue was a perfectly pleasant dragon. She would help the women with the washing, carrying the heavier loads for them, and at night would sit with the children around the storyteller, listening quietly to tales told of warrior heroes, of courage, righteousness and selflessness towards the country, of wisdom despite the turmoil the kingdoms were facing. Ma Yan would try to read to her, with his own limited knowledge of words, and the villagers agreed that having Muxue around mellowed him very much, almost like a wife did. Maybe it would even settle him down sufficiently for him to consider getting a wife. He was after all getting to a marriageable age.

One day, Ma Yan surprised the village again by declaring that he wanted to join the army.

“Muxue has expressed a wish to serve the kingdom with honour,†he said, “and I would also like to prove my loyalty by contributing such an outstanding dragon to our battle. The great Commander Jiang Mu has been known to appreciate the strength and finesse of dragonkind, and his intentions are admirable and just. I shall offer us to him, and apply to become one of the troops!â€

He left the village to great fanfare.

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"You seem troubled." Lung Shui Chang noted, as he walked alongside Jiang Mu.


"This is a momentous occasion after all. After all the years my father reigned through stable times, the Heavens choose to burden me with the chaotic times that will make or break our country. How will I answer to father if this is the wrong choice, and I lose everything he built?" Jiang Mu confided.


"That is not something to concern yourself with. Regardless of the potential consequences or circumstances, you'll still try your best. Even if that is not enough, there is no alternative other than giving up without trying. So it seems simple to me. Just don't worry about the end until it comes."


Jiang Mu shook his head. "I'd like to be so carefree, but I suppose these worries are what all leaders must bear. With such great authority comes power, but also a feeling of helplessness."



They reached the parade grounds and began their inspection of the troops. The land army was okay. It was nothing special. The troops performed their drills competently and seemed well-equipped, but here and there were sluggish movements or clumsy wielding of the spears. Jiang Mu would've liked it to improve, but he didn't have the population in his provinces to be more selective of troops, or to find many capable generals to train them. It mattered not though, for he did control the most powerful aerial forces.


While the other leaders in Bingzhou all had their own formidable aerial forces, Jiang Mu certainly held the majority of the land and was able to sustain a greater amount of dragons. They had excellent trainers for those at least. Jiang Mu watched the aerial maneuvers with approval. They were quite in form. Dragons moving in perfect formations with their crews showing a good level of accuracy and coordination in their archery.


However, there was one outlier. A dragon with but a single rider, who was clearly inexperienced at the maneuvers. It was actually absurd how badly they stuck out, Jiang Mu had watched the aerial forces all his life, coming to these inspections with his father from a young age, and he'd never seen such incompetency on display. Normally, the new or injured troops were kept grounded so as not to mess up the inspection. Jiang Mu would receive a report detailing how many troops were not participating, to ensure it was an acceptable amount and not some attempt to make the army look better than it was by only showing off the best.


At the end of the inspection, Jiang Mu asked about it.


Feng Jun, the famously meticulous general in charge of training the army, explained that while the dragon and rider were grounded, they disregarded the order and went up anyway. "I assure you they will be disciplined appropriately, my lord."


"When were they recruited?"


"Only this morning, my lord. I suspect they are not used to the army discipline they have signed up for."


Jiang Mu looked to Shuichang, who was coiled up inside the mansion meeting hall, next to Jiang Mu's seat. "They did well give they had no training at all, don't you think?"


Shuichang seemed to shrug, not opening his eyes. "Perhaps."


"Bring them to me, Feng Jun." Jiang Mu instructed. "I'm curious."


Feng Jun bowed and marched out to fetch them.


"I thought you'd have more on your mind than some odd new recruits?" Shuichang wondered.


Jiang Mu sighed, "Too much. That is exactly why I'd meet with them. Something to take my mind off matters beyond my control for now."

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“Come, Xiaoxue, let us move left!†Ma Yan hollered, raising his fist in the air. The rider beside him turned and shot him a glare, which fell unnoticed on the over-eager soldier. He had taken to calling Muxue “Xiaoxueâ€, though it was a bit odd to do that to a hulking dragon about twice a human’s size. Fortunately, Xiaoxue was a female, and of the more petite breeds at that, so the name was not too far off.

She turned towards her rider now, her wings outstretched and stable.

“Excuse me, Captain, but I do believe the instructions said to turn right at this time,†she muttered shyly.

“Which is left and which is right?†Ma Yan said, scratching his chin as he looked at both his boorish hands. “I’m quite sure we’re supposed to move left at this time though. This left.†He held out his right arm. Muxue lowered her head with a “yes, captain†and turned obediently to the right, crashing right into the rider that had glared at them earlier.

“Hey, you weren’t supposed to be up here at all! Are you trying to sabotage our practice?â€

The formation had ended abruptly, with all the dragons (and some of the riders) looking around in an exceedingly confused manner, not sure what the next step was. The rider that had glared stormed up to Ma Yan, clenching his fists. Ma Yan puffed out his chest and sauntered up to him.

“How dare you make such dishonourable accusations against me!†he declared. “I, your father, have accumulated more brawling experience than you ever did, even before you were born!â€

“How crude,†the man answered. “In these ranks, I’m of a senior position to you, and I won’t have an uneducated beast messing up my manoeuvres!â€

“Ma Yan, Long Muxue,†came a command from behind them. The great training general Feng Jun walked up to them, his face expressionless. “Please come with me to see our noble commander Jiang Mu.â€

A blush spread across Muxue’s face. Even Ma Yan seemed somewhat deflated.

“Yes, General,†he said resolutely, and marched off behind Feng Jun. Muxue hastily followed, her wings curled up fretfully. She had been stressed and worried ever since the two of them had entered this camp, for Ma Yan was often getting into fights, and being despised by the other soldiers. She knew Commander Jiang Mu must have seen them entering practice without permission. If they were displaced from the army just like that, Ma Yan would be very miserable.

“Commander Jiang, I’ve brought Ma Yan and Long Muxue,†announced Feng Jun. Ma Yan and Muxue stepped into the meeting hall, awed by the majesty and imposing atmosphere of the place, and even moreso by the person sitting at his seat awaiting them. He was a young man, but he already had the bearing of a general. His dragon lay coiled up around him, watching them coolly.

The meeting hall was majestic and imposing, but modest. It managed to give off the impression of authority without the help of any riches or frivolous treasures. All it had were maps, books and other war supplies, arranged impeccably in their place.

Ma Yan and Muxue hastily made their greetings and silently awaited their judgment.

“I shall take my departure then, Commander Jiang,†Feng Jun said, but remained still in case Jiang Mu wished him present.

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Jiang Mu waved Feng Jun away and considered the pair before him for a moment before speaking, noting that they seemed nervous - at least they were conscious of the gravity of their situation.


"I have been informed you two were recruited just this morning yet saw fit, against orders, to try to participate in the aerial maneuvers. Given I have put out the call for fresh recruits to serve our country, it is only to be expected that the many new rookies would demonstrate degrees of incompetency and lack of discipline until they are trained. However, none have been so bold as to try to do something so egregious as to openly disrupt an inspection."


Shuichang seemed to cough in a manner that suggested a disguised chortle. Jiang Mu was conscious that Shuichang must have been thinking of one embarrassing day when Jiang Mu was a child, when he had gotten lost from his father during an inspection and himself disrupted the event by running around wailing for his father. Jiang Mu tried to ignore it and continued.


"Some rulers would have you both executed for such a blatant violation of military orders. So tell me, who are you two? Why are you here? Why should I not execute you both to strengthen the discipline of the army?" he said, staring at them.


Of course, Jiang Mu wasn't actually going to execute them either way. He was not that sort of ruler, and it would not be advisable to execute new recruits on their first day, lest he seriously damage the recruitment effort. But such were the techniques of a ruler, which he had learned from his father. Although he would never be so swift to execute a subject, he had to instill the sense that he might, to emphasize his authority and power and to ensure people considered themselves lucky to be spared - to praise their lord as a merciful one - while daring not to risk making further mistakes.

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The age-old tactic worked. Ma Yan and Muxue were on their knees in an instant, their heads only inches away from the ground.

“Please, have mercy and spare us!†stammered Ma Yan. “We are but ignorant subjects, new to the army and still unaware of the regime. When we saw the formation in the air, we thought only of how majestic it looked, and this fire of passion blazed within us! We want very much to be a part of the fighting procession, and so we thought we’d join them in the practice.â€

Muxue, as expected of females, remained silent. Ma Yan, left without her wise counsel, bumbled on, saying whatever came to his mind.

“I am Ma Yan, who came from the village of Xiliang, my lord. I haven’t been educated much, and don’t know a lot about military discipline. My dragon, Long Muxue, grew up in the wilderness. However, we were determined to serve our nation and be useful in the war. So please bear all these in mind and forgive our transgression!â€

Ma Yan might be a boorish brute with no fear of danger, but the shame of being executed by the army for not following orders was bound to sully his name back in his hometown, and he could not bear that, not after their high hopes for him as they sent him off on this journey. If he would die, he would only permit himself to die on the battlefield, and do them proud.

Muxue too knew little of the ways in the armed forces. Jiang Mu’s tone was serious and imposing, and there was a chance he might make good his word and punish them to enforce order, whether with death or otherwise. The last thing she would want was to ruin Ma Yan’s plea in any way – she was already blaming herself for consenting to the flight to begin with – and so she continued to keep her head down, hoping that Ma Yan’s bumbling sincerity would save them.

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Shuichang raised his head at the news that this dragon had grown up in the wilderness, examining her curiously. She seemed well behaved and quiet for a wild dragon. Of course, the majority of dragons in the sky army were born into civilised society, raised to follow their parents into army service or other occupations. In times of need they had historically employed wild dragons, but it was usually only for defense, where the untrained dragons could simply be pointed at enemies and let loose.


Jiang Mu noticed Shuichang's interest, and indeed himself noted the unusual nature of having a wild dragon present. "Passion is good. It can breed fierce loyalty and strength. But it must be tempered with self-control and discipline, or it becomes a weakness as you displayed today. Fortunately, control can be learned, but passion cannot." he concluded, with a look that suggested this meant he was going to spare Ma Yan. He was expecting their reason to be one more of pride, of trying to show off in the formation. However, their answer was the correct one.


"You say Long Muxue is a dragon of the wild? Even our most skilled generals, in generations of the past, always had trouble trying to train and employ wild dragons. They are not suited to a command structure and to following orders. How have you, Ma Yan, come to secure the loyalty of Long Muxue? Why do you, Long Muxue, follow Ma Yan here?"

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Ma Yan raised his head gingerly, waiting for the pronouncement of death or some other equivalent punishment, but it seemed Commander Jiang Mu had left it at that, and was now asking after Muxue. Having been raised in a rural village around boorish, straightforward company, Ma Yan was not used to the subtleties of city people. He could only take it that somehow they had been spared, or perhaps that Jiang Mu was shelving the matter to bring up later. He felt vaguely annoyed to be left hanging, but sensibly curbed his thoughts to himself.

“I subdued Long Muxue, my lord,†he answered the question proudly. “I had gone out to the wilderness with the intention of fighting a dragon with my bare hands, and I succeeded. This is why Muxue follows me to this day.â€

“I would have imagined,†said Long Shuichang curtly, “that an ego-driven bare-fisted brawl against a menacing large dragon would have earned you much honour. However, I see instead that you chose a frail woman of our kind, whose breed is renowned for its healing rather than combat properties.†Ma Yan blushed angrily and looked down again, torn between embarrassment and discomfort at being chided by a dragon. He had not paid much notice to the curled-up Water Dragon behind the Commander, but he saw now that it held just as much authority as its captain.

“That said,†Shuichang added musingly, “Miss Long Muxue looks like a wise and dignified dragon. Your lineage did not originate in the wild, did you? I fail to imagine that you would willingly follow a man as boorish and uneducated as he. That story was not the truth, was it? Speak the truth!†Ma Yan twitched at the sudden roar.

Muxue hastily lowered herself further.

“Commander Chang, I apologise on behalf of my captain. This story is what has been told to all who asked, and he did not mean to lie to you. Please allow me to narrate the truth of the event,†she said.

“As Commander Chang has astutely observed, neither of my parents are of the wild. My mother was a nurse in the service of Physician Tao Dazhen and my father the dragon companion of the prestigious Li family in Xigui Town,†Jiang Mu nodded knowingly at this point, for the Li family was well-known in these parts for their wealth and honour.

“The Li family broke up my parents and my mother was banished from the town in shame. She went and lived in the hills, where my father had promised to secretly meet her when the first drop of snow fell. There, she bore me. However, during the end of autumn, my mother had died, not accustomed to life in the wilderness. I was born learning only her parting words which she had given me while I was still in the shell, asking me to grow up happily and healthily.

"My father came when winter arrived, but he could not take me back to the town. He would come up often to teach me poetry and educate me in the ways of life. However, after a few months, he stopped coming, and I lived in the wilderness on my own. I was 1 year old when Ma Yan came, looking for a dragon to fight. We engaged in combat for a while, but a landslide occurred and I was trapped under the rocks. Ma Yan saved me by lifting the rocks one by one.â€

Ma Yan glanced at Muxue. He had not heard this story before. He had somehow always considered her a wild dragon, who just happened to take interest in matters of human civilisation.

“He was about to leave after making sure that I would be alright, but I asked him to take me with him, for he represents the fatherly warmth I never had. He has indeed subdued me, my lords, but it is with his kindness rather than his fists.

“Forgive me for having told you about my life details.†Tears glistened in her eyes.

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Jiang Mu was moved. "Such a story is like a romantic tale of old. An origin belonging to a life of great tragedy... or of great heroism." he noted. He somewhat admired such an interesting background, when for himself he could only state himself as his father's son.

"I expect to see great things from both of you in future." he said, standing up, "I will spare you more severe punishment in expectation that you will make up for today's mishap with future service. Of course, some punishment is still warranted, to uphold the military discipline, but I shall leave that matter to General Feng Jun. You may return to camp now."

Feng Jun escorted Ma Yan and Muxue away, and decreed they would receive only half rations for one week. He was himself relieved they had made a good impression on Jiang Mu, or else it would have tarnished his own reputation if they were deemed to have stained the entire inspection direly, and was inclined toward such leniency.


The following day, the army marched forth to the meeting with the other regional governors. There were a dozen or more governors come to join the cause, and their gathered camps just outside the passes leading to the capital, Luoyang, stretched for miles into the horizon. It was the largest gathering of military might Jiang Mu had ever witnessed, and it was with some trepidation that he sat among the other generals in the meeting area of the main camp.

Yuan Shao was elected leader of the coalition, naturally, as an officer of high rank and impeccable family background and connections. He made opening speeches and sacrifices, recited oaths with the other governors - all the necessary ceremony that Jiang Mu was both familiar with and apathetic toward. Finally Cao Cao, the man who'd won fame almost having assassinated Dong Zhuo (the only person to attempt such and live to tell about it), stood and began to describe all the tactical information he'd accumulated while in the capital. Jiang Mu tried to pay attention, but some things went over his head - though he suspected he wasn't alone in that regard. Cao Cao seemed a very talented tactician.

But soon the meeting was interrupted by a distant shouts and the arrival of a concerned messenger. "Hua Xiong is outside the camp, challenging us to come out and fight him! He wants to fight hand-to-hand, and is mocking our generals' wushu skills!"

Cao Cao enlightened the gathering that Hua Xiong was renowned as Dong Zhuo's 4th best general and fighter.

"The first battle is upon us, and we must defeat this general to bolster the morale of our army and set the tone for our campaign. Who would go fight this Hua Xiong in unarmed combat?" Yuan Shao questioned.

Jiang Mu's own generals were definitely not among the fiercest fighters of the land, and he knew it was pointless for him to volunteer any. There were more famous generals present who would seize this glory. Jiang Mu knew his region's strength lie solely in its dragon forces.

Yu She of Yuan Shu's army volunteered immediately and headed out eagerly. It was almost as immediately that the messenger returned with news of Yu She's death - killed after but three clashes with Hua Xiong.

The gathering was concerned, however Han Fu volunteered a general of his own, Pan Feng, who he guaranteed could topple Hua Xiong. But no, it was not long before news came of his death as well.

Yuan Shao could only mourn, "If only my two great generals, Yan Liang and Wen Chou were here!"

There was murmuring as no further volunteers arose to attempt the challenge. It seemed as if Yuan Shao was about to give up and suggest they ignore it now, when a voice arose, "I will go and bring you back Hua Xiong's head!"

Jiang Mu turned to see, it was Guan Yu, one of the followers of the imperial relative Liu Bei, who was seated down at the very end of the assembly after being admitted by Yuan Shao on the basis of his lineage, despite his lack of army or status. After some objection and ridicule from Yuan Shu, that they would send a mere unranked soldier to fight a prestigious general, Cao Cao eventually mediated the situation and Yuan Shao consented to give Guan Yu a chance.

Jiang Mu was concerned himself. He agreed on giving the man a chance, but he didn't have much hope. It was unsettling that they were indeed suffering such defeats immediately in their campaign, against the 4th best enemy general even, not the 3rd or 2nd or the dreaded Lu Bu. He was starting to think it was perhaps unwise to have come here.

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The fight happened when Ma Yan and Muxue were resting in the dragon pavilions.

They had accompanied Commander Jiang Mu, together with a few other soldiers, to protect him and Shuichang on the way to Sishui Pass for an urgent meeting of the warring coalition. No harm had come to them on the way here, and Muxue had a hunch the envoys were the ones who could be spared from military training for a few days. She did not let on her suspicion to Ma Yan though, for he was gleaming with pride at his first escort mission, and had even ceased complaining about his decreased rations for the past few days.

The dragon pavilions were a comfortable spot. It was of course a bit cramped, for each representative had brought their own envoy, and Muxue was forced to share the smallest pavilion with about 10 other female dragons. She was enjoying a good rest after the flying, and some food kindly prepared by the host, when she heard the clip-clop of horses in the distance, followed by some loud shouting by messengers. She craned her neck curiously to see what all the commotion was about.

“It’s Hua Xiong, it’s Hua Xiong, from Dong Zhuo’s company!†Word soon got around the dragon pavilions, with sharp intakes of breath and some soldiers widening their eyes. “And he wants to fight someone in one-on-one combat!â€

“Who is this Hua Xiong, and why is everyone so scared of him?†asked Ma Yan. “If he wants to fight I will gladly go out and grant his wish!â€

“Oh, you do not know!†said a soldier beside him. “Many people have wanted to dethrone Dong Zhuo after he seized control of the capital of Luoyang, but none have succeeded. He has killed Bao Zhong, the brother of Bao Xin who is one of the coalition leaders. He has also killed Zu Mao, the general of Sun Jian, who tried to lay a trap against him but failed. Only truly formidable warriors can win him. Dong Zhuo must’ve known of this meeting and is coming to stop us!â€

“He doesn’t look that threatening,†snorted Ma Yan, who had run out to the front of the crowd to see just whom this man was. Hua Xiong was a burly man, with broad shoulders and a round head. He was leaner than the big-bodied Ma Yan, but he walked with an air of alertness and confidence in his stride. Ma Yan was about to step forward and answer his call when he saw that someone else was doing so just as eagerly. It was Yu She, whispered the helpful soldier, a general under Yuan Shu.

The battle was epic. Yu She tried to outspeed the burly Hua Xiong, running to the side while the man stood on guard, then swerved in with his leg outstretched to kick him from the side. However, Hua Xiong reached out a tensed arm and easily deflected his flying kick, knocking him to the ground. He marched up to the fallen man, who sprang back up and went for a punch, but was outpaced by a strategic punch to the stomach. Yu She’s lips were dyed crimson as he reluctantly coughed out a few drops of blood. In a last-ditch effort, he tried ramming his head in full strength against his opponent’s toned stomach, but Hua Xiong calmly grabbed him by the shoulders and snapped his neck.

Yu She slid off Hua Xiong onto the ground in a crumpled heap. A distraught messenger ran as quickly as his legs could carry him indoors to report the result.

“Now it’s my turn-“ before Ma Yan could push his way forward, the next contender had arrived, Pan Feng, a heavier-set man who seemed to cause tremors on the ground as he walked.

“How do these people get to come out?†asked Ma Yan with a raised voice.

“I expect the leaders inside would send out their generals to fight him,†came Muxue’s response.

“Well, Commander Jiang shouldn’t think twice in choosing me to champion him. I shall bring him such honour in front of the coalition!†Ma Yan declared, crossing his arms.

“Pray do not be impatient, my captain,†said Muxue hastily. “This man looks like he has fought countless battles against enemies much stronger than himself. Perhaps brute force isn’t enough to beat him. And look, Sir Pan Feng has fallen as well.â€

Indeed, Pan Feng was also lying dead on the ground, and Hua Xiong looked as if he had sustained no injuries, neither was he showing any sign of exhaustion.

The next contender was Guan Yu, said the soldiers, but nobody seemed to know much more about him.

“Who are you?†asked Hua Xiong scornfully.

“I am Guan Yu, but it matters little that you know nothing about me, for you will not need to after this match,†was the witty reply, before he ran up with his fists clenched. Hua Xiong held out a hand, ready to fend him off, but Guan Yu was faster. He slid to the side and punched Hua Xiong right at the chest. When he leaped away again, Hua Xiong tried to move, but found he couldn’t.

“What… what have you done?†he spluttered.

“I have only hit your acupoint for movement,†answered Guan Yu composedly. “You are now paralysed.â€

He moved forward again, so nimbly he seemed like a blur to the eye. With a few choice punches, he sent Hua Xiong hurtling to the ground. He grimly retrieved a dagger from his pocket and with one clean stroke severed the foe’s head, tucking it under his arm.

Muxue suddenly let out a gasp. Ma Yan was missing! She turned, and as expected, he was standing right before Guan Yu, holding his hands out in a gesture of respect.

“Sir, I am Ma Yan, and I must profess to being moved by your act of bravery and heroism! You are truly a good fighter!†he yelled.

A smile flickered across Guan Yu’s face. He patted the head under his arm.

“I thank you for the compliment, brother,†he said, “but I am afraid I cannot converse further. I must report my victory and besides, my wine is getting cold.â€

With an acknowledging nod, he walked past Ma Yan and re-entered the meeting hall.

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Dong Zhuo's troops were rattled by the casual defeat of their general, and retreated for the time being. All the gathered lords looked to Liu Bei, who seemed to possess a warrior greater than any they had - if absolutely nothing else. The notion that the Imperial relative had a man who had now dealt the first crushing blow to the tyrant Dong Zhuo's forces served as quite a good portent and inspiration for the efforts. Jiang Mu particularly was infected by the spirit of righteousness and purpose - they were here to overthrow the evil tyrant, and heaven was on their side.




The next day, all the preparations to advance were settled. Sun Jian was charged as the vanguard and would lead the ground forces forward toward Luoyang, while Jiang Mu was given the responsibility to provide him with aerial support. Jiang Mu led the bulk of his forces somewhat behind Sun Jian, while two squadrons were sent up and positioned flanking either side of Sun Jian's forces. Those were led by Chen Wei, who was easily the best combat general Jiang Mu had, and Tu Zan, a promising younger general who had pleaded for the chance to lead one of the squadrons and prove himself. Tan Yong and Feng Jun were left back at the camp to mind things there, while the strategist Qiao Ming accompanied Jiang Mu to help advise him.


Shuichang could feel Jiang Mu's nerves as they proceeded. "Relax. We are well-prepared. Dong Zhuo has no particularly remarkable strategists, this should be a fairly simple engagement."


It made sense, but Jiang Mu's apprehension was not a matter of logic. One could not help being nervous in this situation. Soon they would clash with the enemy army, and mortal peril would be everywhere. Not only that, but to lose the upcoming battle would be such a shameful first impression. Other governors had their own small but decent aerial forces, but they had assented to let Jiang Mu provide the air forces for the vanguard, willing to believe in his capabilities. If he lost, it was entirely possible they would have him removed from the position and fill it with their own forces.


The proceeding was slow and cautious. Amidst the mountain pass, there were many opportunities for enemy ambushes. Fortunately, after but half a day march, they encountered the enemy. They had assumed a fairly standard formation, and appeared to be set to engage in a straightforward battle to halt the advance. Jiang Mu was too far back to get a clear view himself, but messengers passed back word that pegged the enemy army as comparable in size to their own, though with a significant disadvantage in aerial power. Of course, many armies that didn't field a lot of dragons simply came prepared with many anti-air ballistas and such to defend themselves from attack from above.


Jiang Mu's anxiety only grew. For now, Sun Jian's forward forces and his own two squadrons would be engaging this battle, while Jiang Mu held back with the bulk of his forces. It wasn't wise to throw everything at the enemy at once, Jiang Mu had to wait and defend against rear attacks, provide a strong rear line to control things if the forward forces had to retreat, and to distribute fresh forces to parts of the battle that required reinforcements. And so, as the forward forces clashed with the enemy, Jiang Mu could only watch, wait, and hope his generals did him proud.

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Battle drums boomed in the distance, encouraging the soldiers with a medley of heavy beats that stirred the heart. Troops gathered with their dragons in orderly lines to shout warring cries in unison. Ma Yan’s eyes sparkled in delight. He needed no encouragement. This was going to be an actual battle, and he was involved! His armoured chest heaved in fast, passionate breaths. He was eager to be in the thick of the action.

“I am Tu Zan!†a voice rang out from the front. Ma Yan squinted and saw a man with a Fire Dragon. The Fire Dragon was sitting arched in an erect pose to mirror his captain, who spoke with his hands on his hips.

“I am the leader of this squadron, as elected by the Commander Jiang Mu. I have drawn up a battle plan for you to adhere to, so please listen carefully! First of all, all female dragons will station at the back to support the battle where necessary.â€

He was met with gasps and murmurs from all directions. About one-third of the dragons in the squadron were female. A brave hand shot up among the crowd, belonging to a very scrawny soldier.

“Sir, my dragon is a Metal Dragon. She will be much less effective at the rear. If possible, please let her absorb hits and blows from the front. As you can see, her size is comparable to any male and I can vouch for her strength and resilience, which we have trained hard during our training sessions,†he said.

Indeed, even Ma Yan could see from this distance the hulking weight of the aforementioned Metal Dragon. She seemed even bigger than the male Metal Dragon beside her. He cast a glance at Muxue regretfully. She was a female Wood Dragon, and had even less right to stay in the front where the action would be.

“I will consider your petition for future campaigns!†said Tu Zan, his voice even firmer than before. “However my plan has been set for now. Jinlian will be chosen to step up if we ever need backup. However, I trust better in the constitution of male dragons. Now, let us move on to the next point. The dragons will spread out over this area, in a fanned-out position…â€

“I wonder if he has consulted his plan with other generals,†whispered Muxue worriedly. “I cannot imagine such a formation will not interfere with Commander Sun Jian’s main forces.â€

“Well, I like him very much,†declared Ma Yan. “He is forthright and ambitious. A good man if ever I saw one!â€

Muxue remained quiet, a sign that she could not agree at all with the statement. Ma Yan had learnt to pick up on her subtle signals by now, but he decided that this time she was just being wishy-washy like the woman she was. Tu Zan had a point when he trusted the male dragons more.

After the briefing had concluded, the soldiers had time for only one practice round, after which they gathered at Hulao Pass, where the entourage was to proceed. Ma Yan saw a breathtaking view of people waving different flags, but all with the same determined expression on their faces, the expression that united them all. He knew that Dong Zhuo had much more forces, but none of these men backed down from a challenge.

“Charge!†someone screamed from somewhere. Ma Yan didn’t know who or where it was, but he gripped Muxue’s reins tightly and they flew, as per their formation, slightly behind the combat forces. Ma Yan had smartly manoeuvred them towards the front of their group, so he could still have a somewhat good view despite the arrangement. Tu Zan, being the rider of a ranged Fire Dragon, positioned himself behind the Water Dragons, which swerved fluidly in front of the enemy forces, aiming to distract them while looking for weak points to strike at the same time. The Fire Dragons were prepared. The moment the Water Dragons left an opening, they would launch an attack and then quickly take cover behind the beefy Metal Dragons.

However, it seemed Muxue’s prediction proved right. The enemy dragons took advantage of the openings left by the Water Dragons to slither among their troops and access the less defensive soldiers in Sun Jian’s troops. The Fire Dragons, protected by Metal Dragons in the front, were open to attack from the side. Anxious, Tu Zan rallied his dragon up to fight them off, one shock wave after another causing dragons to cough up blood in mid-air and fall to the ground. He inched closer and closer, motivated by the victory…

“He’s getting too close! Someone stop him!†Muxue cried out, darting up as quickly as she could.

An Earth Dragon from Dong Zhuo’s side, bearing dull brown colours for easier camouflage, had been hiding under the body of a Metal Dragon, and after this Metal Dragon fell to its demise, unable to withstand the close-up power of the shock wave, she glided out and with her trademark speed came up face to face with the Fire Dragon. Fire Dragons had always been disadvantaged in close combat, and with a swipe of the claws Tu Zan’s dragon was thrown back, dazed. The Earth Dragon was about to charge up for the kill when she crashed into a larger body that had flung itself between them.

“Sir, please move away!†yelled the scrawny soldier as Jinlian bore down on the much smaller Earth Dragon, her eyes shining with bloodthirsty rage. She was an aggressive Metal Dragon, and had often lamented her lumbering speed that prevented her from clashing head-on with her foes. With the Earth Dragon now so conveniently in her grasp, she was not going to let go.

In the meantime, Muxue had reached the injured Fire Dragon and was quickly releasing her therapeutic fumes to heal it. Ma Yan caught a whiff of floral fragrance – something resembling a cross between a jasmine and a chrysanthemum. Tu Zan had been knocked out from the impact, but he too opened his eyes and let out a moan.

“Thank you,†said the Fire Dragon briefly. “We shall resume fighting now. Tu Zan, are you able to continue?â€

“Yes,†answered his captain, gripping the reins once more. “We were thrown out of formation for a while, but we should be able to recover it quickly, this time making sure to block off the side in case the enemy troops try the same tactic again, the underhanded beasts!â€

Muxue let out a gasp. It seemed he had not discovered the folly of his pride.

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The battle seemed to be going well, though Qiao Ming pointed out to Jiang Mu something he otherwise had not noticed: Tu Zan's tactical error that let enemies slip through their formation. He would have to have words about that after the battle. Especially because bigger concerns were about to arise.


Shuichang saw it first, "Look, in the hills, Tu-lung!" The earth dragons were pressed flat against the mountainous hills on either side of the pass, but now sprang to life to join the battle. They had emerged behind the forward lines, but Jiang Mu's reserve forces were still behind them as well. An elementary attempt to flank the main combat force. But Jiang Mu was ready for this textbook tactic, and quickly ordered his force forward to assist.


As the swarm of Tu-lung fell upon the embattled forces of Sun Jian and Jiang Mu's dragon squadrons, there was a moment of chaos as the allied forces realized they were now surrounded, pressed between the two enemy forces. But the horns rang out from the signal teams in Jiang Mu's main force as it rushed to the rescue, and the men were heartened. Chen Wei let loose a battle cry, "They have fallen into OUR trap now! Our lord is joining the battle, show him your mettle!"


As the heavier weight dragons crashed bodily into the earth dragons with resounding thuds and roars and the crushing of bone, a sea of flesh splashing violently into another, Jiang Mu was extremely startled by Shuichang's movements. He had braced for the crash, but Shuichang's body whipped around so suddenly in such a mesmerizing manner that Jiang Mu couldn't believe they had avoided ramming the enemy dragon before them - it felt like they had gone straight through it, so tightly had Shuichang woven its body around and past it. Truly the water dragons flowed gracefully. But they were not all grace and tranquility. As soon as Shuichang had bewildered the enemy dragon by slipping behind it, he lashed out with his claws and scraped all the crew off the dragon's back with one precise raking movement. A second quick slash tore the dragon's wing membranes, and it was sent spinning down toward the ground, following its plummeting crew.


For Jiang Mu, the battle went much in that manner. Sometimes the enemies were quicker to react and countered or avoided that deadly maneuver though, but the follow-up tactic was for Shuichang to turn such that Jiang Mu could command the archers aboard to unleash a volley at the enemy dragon's face as it spun around to get at Shuichang. Their tactics were well-practiced but this was the first major battle that tested them for real. They sustained volleys from enemy archers themselves too. Shuichang was too fast to hit with precise strikes, so enemies arranged to fire a wide burst of arrows with the hopes to hit something at least. A few crewmen were lost to those attacks, and Shuichang took light wounds. The smell of blood was prominent, but Shuichang assured Jiang Mu it was to be expected to sustain many minor wounds.


Soon enough the battle came to an end. The enemy land forces were outmatched by Sun Jian, who seemed a brilliant general himself. From the sky, Jiang Mu had noted the intricate movements of the men below, the way Dong Zhuo's forces gradually fell back more and more, the way Sun Jian's kept pressuring them and sending small detachments to flank them then retreat, hitting and running. He could pick out the generals below, and watched Sun Jian himself, with his trademark red cloak, expertly dispatching enemies. Meanwhile the enemy air forces seemed to have no tricks other than the basic rear attack tactic, and with that foiled they were defeated handily.


The allied armies did not chase Dong Zhuo's remaining fleeing forces. Instead Sun Jian opted for them to rest their own forces, and let the enemies go wallow in their despair and carry the news of their crushing defeat. They moved a way up from the site of the battle though, to escape the mounds of dead men and dragons, and set up camp for the night.


It was at this time that Jiang Mu could call forth Tu Zan. Shuichang slept genuinely this time, rather than his usual habit of feigning sleep while listening in. His wounds were patched up but he was exhausted, understandably. Qiao Ming was present as well, being the most knowledgeable about Tu Zan's tactical blunder.


"Your squadron seemed to falter in this battle, Tu Zan. Word in the camp is you overextended and had to be saved by a soldier under you." Jiang Mu began.


"My formation was fine, my lord, it was just an unlucky moment. I would have been fine without help, anyway." Tu Zan asserted.


Qiao Ming spoke up here, "You employed the Stinging River formation incorrectly, and suffered from it."


Tu Zan objected, "But I assembled the formation perfectly as instructions dictate."


Jiang Mu already knew the problem, and highlighted it. "But the Stinging River formation is not meant to be used in a position like your squadron was in. It should form the center position, with stronger defensive formations guarding the flanks so enemies can't slip in through the gaps as they did to you. But you were never in such position, as a wing to Sun Jian's troops. I must question your readiness to command."


Qiao Ming nodded, pleased that Jiang Mu was learned in this matter.


Tu Zan fell to his knees, "You are right my lord! But please do not dismiss me! This was our first real combat, next time I won't make any mistakes, now that I am experienced with real battle. Allow me to redeem that mistake and prove myself!"


In the end, Jiang Mu agreed to give him another chance. He slept uneasily on the decision. He did think it a shame to not use Tu Zan anymore, when perhaps he did have great potential and it was indeed just a one-time mistake. But it would be disastrous if the man did not have potential at all and made more mistakes. Without Shuichang to consult, Jiang Mu just did his best not to worry too much now, and get some sleep for the next day of war.

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A momentary gloomy pall befell the soldiers of Tu Zan’s squadron as they appraised their dinner. A downpour had greeted them as they marched onward, encouraged by their victory, breaking the barren stillness of Hulao Pass with taunting cheers. The enemies had retreated as quickly as they came, though, taking cover from the misty rain and the setting sun. Finally, Commander Jiang Mu ordered troops to stake camp for the night, fearing that their food supplies would be further compromised by the weather.

The soggy rice and stale meat, however, could not dampen their spirits for long, not when they had won this battle! Soldiers gathered around tables, eagerly recounting their brave acts over wine, or spectacular stunts they had seen other warriors do. There was no denying, though, that the highlight of the night was Jinlian and her captain, the bony and initially overlooked Yan Hei.

Ma Yan had taken only a few bites of meat before retreating to his bunk. He would have liked nothing better than to join the raucous crowd, but Muxue had complained of exhaustion and wanted an early night. She had gotten a scare during the battle, and being her first battle, was not very used to the action and riot. She had after all lived most of her life secluded in the hills.

She had insisted that she would be fine resting on her own, and that Ma Yan could socialise outside without need for worry. He was very much inclined to do so himself, but the conversation had basically turned towards Jinlian and Yan Hei, and since he was not very good friends with them, he saw nothing to interest him.

“I wonder where Leader Tu Zan went,†he wondered aloud as he cleaned his face with water in a bowl. Muxue, curled up in the dragon pen, cocked an alert eye at him and said nothing.

“I know you still disapprove of him,†Ma Yan said, always straight to the point. He expected Muxue to remain silent again, but to his surprise, she spoke.

“He is a young and overconfident leader,†she said. She only dared to use such words around Ma Yan, when nobody else was around, and even then he wished she didn’t. It ruined the image of a virtuous and gentle lady for him. “I do not trust his battle plans. However, of course, his spirit is admirable.†She glanced at him as she said it.

It was not long before she fell asleep, and Ma Yan, restless as he always was, decided to take a stroll around the bunks, where he could have a good view of the mountains. It was there that he met Tu Zan and Huoyang, who were sitting on the grass patch with a letter in hand. Never one to stand on ceremony, Ma Yan walked up for a hearty greeting.

“I have just written a letter home,†said Tu Zan stiffly, not sure of the behaviour he should exhibit to a man of lower standing when outside of battle. “Have you done so recently?â€

“Oh, no, I can’t write,†said Ma Yan casually. “Besides, I shall return home victorious someday, and tell my tales directly to the people in my village. It is far better than writing regular letters home.â€

Tu Zan laughed, but his face darkened.

“I know not when I can return home again, and to what sentiments I will be greeted with,†he murmured. “My father is bedridden with a sickness that has ailed him for many years. His only wish is for me to become a warlord and bring glory back to the family, and has been waiting for me, resisting the lure of death, for me to bring back the good news. I… I cannot lose this battle.†He balled his fists and looked up into the night sky, the stars glimmering back at him.

“The next battle will decide my chances for promotion. I just know it.â€

Huoyang too looked pensively at the sky, smoke escaping thinly from his nostrils.

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It was two days before the next battle came. Dong Zhuo's forces seemed to keep retreating, perhaps waiting for reinforcements or trying to take the impetus out of the victory of their enemies in the first clash. Sun Jian ordered the advance rapidly but carefully, increasingly concerned about the possibilities of ambush. Jiang Mu was inspired by him as a general - the lords had truly chosen an ideal vanguard. He and his officers had dined with Sun Jian and his during the evenings at camp, and he had found the man to be determined and strong, surely with a great career ahead of him. His territory was small currently, but Jiang Mu didn't doubt he'd be able to expand it in future.


Nearing the end of Hulao Pass, Dong Zhuo's army did take another stand, however. It would be their last chance to hold the pass and prevent the coalition army gaining a pathway to Luoyang. The preparations for battle and formations went much the same as the previous battle, however this time Jiang Mu had sent a scouting party of Jade dragons to scour the hillsides and search for any more hiding Earth dragons. It seemed this time there was none; the enemy had either decided not to try the same tactic twice or their aerial forces were too depleted. Not many Earth dragons had escaped when Jiang Mu countered their ambush last time.


Qiao Ming suggested to Jiang Mu again that Tu Zan not be let to command the wing force in this engagement again, but Jiang Mu stuck to his decision, "Of course there is a lot at stake, but there is no battle where that is not true. I must give him a chance now or give up on him forever, and I am not prepared to cast aside a promising young general so readily."


Battle was joined fiercely, with Dong Zhuo's men seeming to have regained their vigor after their prior defeat. Some of Dong Zhuo's more notable generals had joined the fray this time, but it was of little concern for Jiang Mu. His aerial forces already knew to target enemy generals from above if the chance presented itself, but generally the enemy anti-air forces worked to defend them. Sun Jian's ground forces seemed to be struggling more this time, so Jiang Mu committed extra aerial forces to assist him, midway through the battle, since there appeared not to be any ambush so far this time.


Chen Wei's squadron was holding their own amply, as expected of him. But Jiang Mu watched Tu Zan's force with worry. Watching the battle from afar was a case of seeing a flow of bodies and sounds of either courage or fear mingled amidst the cries of death. And Jiang Mu's heart sank, as in this flow, he noticed suddenly Tu Zan's forces in disarray. The regular battle formations were falling apart, something had gone wrong, and that side of the field was rapidly deteriorating. Jiang Mu sent more reinforcements to bolster it, but Qiao Ming expressed concern whether they'd reach it in time to save it from falling apart entirely. One flank being routed would leave the rest of the air and ground formations vulnerable, and the fate of the battle to hang in danger.

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Ma Yan was sure something had gone wrong even before he heard Muxue sigh. He was no tactician, but it was obvious the enemy had bested them again. Earth Dragons had slipped amidst their ranks, and even the ranged Fire Dragons and Wood Dragons, who were traditionally kept at a distance for safety, had become daring enough to come up close, hoping for bigger kills. The Metal Dragons in the frontlines were all slain, their captains clinging for dear life as they fell in clumps. Tu Zan himself was brawling with a Water Dragon – always a bad match-up when in close combat – and 2 Wood Dragons stationed themselves beside Huoyang to keep him alive. The Fire Dragon, having sustained multiple injuries from the last battle, had not completely regained stamina. He fired wave after wave of shock waves, completely wasting their ability to hit multiple targets. Soon a Wood Dragon flew up beside the Water Dragon, and the tables were totally turned.

He was busy himself. Dragons around him were crying out for reinforcements, and Muxue had essentially over-extended herself darting around to heal them all. She had even risked herself a few times allowing Ma Yan to hit opposing captains directly with his axe – a weapon he found a great affinity for – thus saving some of their compatriots from certain danger.

He saw from the corner of his eye that one of the Wood Dragons beside Tu Zan had fallen, seemingly from exhaustion, for the Water Dragon did not even strike a blow at her. The other Wood Dragon was also evidently panting.

“Muxue, we have to go help Leader Tu!†he said.

“Yes,†was her brief answer. She had been speaking a lot less as the battle wore on, to conserve energy. She started turning clumsily towards Tu Zan, but was stopped by a Water Dragon along the way.

“Help!†shouted Wei Lei, captain of Shuijian. “We need healing!â€

They were faced up against a particularly aggressive Metal Dragon, who apart from taking hits had learnt something of wielding her fangs as well. Shuijian had some ugly bloody gashes over his beautifully scaled body, and was darting about trying to attack the Metal Dragon’s weak spots, but to no avail. Muxue remembered that the plan originally had him pairing with an Earth Dragon who could serve as distraction and make stealth attacks where possible, but it seemed the Earth Dragon must have perished or been taken out of battle.

Ma Yan looked worriedly from Shuijian to Huoyang. It was impossible for Muxue to support both of them in time. Beside him, a Water Dragon cried as her captain fell off thanks to a lucky blow by the enemy. The enemy soldier jumped onto the Water Dragon, intending to claim her as prize. Ma Yan balled his fists. He couldn’t stand by helplessly while other people got into the fray of the battle anymore.

“Muxue, you stay here with Shuijian!†he ordered, then to everyone’s astonishment, took a big jump to land on the Water Dragon’s back. Swinging his giant axe with a cry of “take that!†he knocked the alarmed enemy soldier right off the dragon’s back.

“Who’re you?†asked the Water Dragon, Shuiyan, in alarm.

“I’m on your side!†he replied simply. “Now let’s go help Leader Tu!â€

Muxue knew immediately what to do. She turned around and glided up alongside Shuijian, healing him up sufficiently for him to prolong the fight. Ma Yan rode up with Shuiyan to Tu Zan’s side. With a Water Dragon on their side now, they were more evenly matched, and few could keep up with Ma Yan’s enthusiasm and brute force. They engaged strikes, allowing Tu Zan and Huoyang some breathing space. The battle looked more optimistic again.

Shuijian shot a glance at Muxue. There was an unfathomable expression on the Wood Dragon’s face.


The battle wore on, with Ma Yan and Shuiyan dazing the Water Dragon before darting away to let Huoyang fire off a powerful shock wave at the immobilised foe. They looked set to emerge triumphant, until Tu Zan noticed an enemy Fire Dragon bearing down on their ground troops, taking a deep breath and preparing to fire. At his range, a large proportion of ground troops would be instantly annihilated.

With a cry of “Noooo!â€, he and Huoyang barrelled downwards to push the Fire Dragon out of the way, meeting the shock wave right in the face. With a cry of anger, Ma Yan launched a ferocious swipe at the Water Dragon, knocking it out, and shot down to meet Tu Zan and Huoyang. Huoyang was using the remainder of his energy to cushion his fall, but a line of blood had already formed from Tu Zan’s mouth. Ma Yan tried to carry him to Shuiyan’s back, but he lifted a hand.

“No… let me stay here… with Huoyang,†he whispered. “It’s no use. I know myself. This is atonement… for almost harming the entire squadron.â€

No more words were said, for Huoyang had collapsed onto the ground, and Tu Zan was still. Ma Yan stretched out a hand to close his eyelids, and gradually he sensed that Huoyang’s spirit, too, had gone to join his captain.

“YOU’LL ALL PAY FOR THIS!†he roared, glaring at the enemy Fire Dragon, who had also been knocked off the ground. He jumped off Shuiyan’s back and sprinted towards them, hand clutched so tightly over his axe that his whites showed through. He punched the man, sending blood spurting out his nose, then raised his axe and cleanly severed his head off.

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Jiang Mu watched. And watched. And watched. The endangered flank just continued to hang in the balance. The reinforcements reached it and assisted, but the enemy had built up too much momentum and they could barely hold them back. Sun Jian's forces were taking fire from above as enemy dragons became freer to target the ground forces.


Qiao Ming shook his head. "Not good. Not good! The enemy has a stronger air force this time, they must have held back in the first battle to try to draw our forces forward for their ambush attack. This time they are as a wall, not giving any ground at all."


The aerial forces were battered and tired, their formations long fallen apart. A Jade dragon came racing up bearing ill news, "General Tu Zan has fallen my lord! The men are demoralized!"


Shuichang started forward without needing the order, ready for Jiang Mu's reaction. "Qiao Ming, take half the remaining troops to aid Chen Wei and warn him of the situation. I will take the rest and try to rally Tu Zan's remaining forces!" he waved several other captains to join him and headed into the battle swiftly. Qiao Ming proceeded behind the remaining forces on his lumbering Zhao-Lung, muttering about fiery youths eager to charge in first and how he was too old for such fighting.


Jiang Mu had his crew sound his leader's horn as his group approached the battle, and as Shuichang flew in deep amidst the ranks they called out, "Lord Jiang has come personally! FORWARD!" It was of some comfort to the tired troops, but it was mostly the flood of fresh dragons that helped. Energetic, uninjured dragons clashed into the enemy's own tiring ranks, allowing the more tired and wounded of their allies to take it easier toward the rear and lend what support they could still.


Shuichang swam through the enemies once again, his flexible body twisting and turning, his long thin wings opening and shutting abruptly. To fit through narrow gaps he tucked his wings in, his body moving still from momentum and his smaller wing-fins allowing some measure of gliding ability. Other times he'd freefall entirely before spreading his wings again and whooshing upward once more. But it was true that this time the enemy ranks were more dense. More enemy water dragons and earth dragons were about, and Shuichang found himself with enemies tailing him soon. Jiang Mu ducked low as enemy arrows whizzed over his head before Shuichang could turn to shield him from them.

Smaller dragons raked at Shuichang, gaining no purchase but tearing streaks with their claws as he slipped through their grasp. His dazzling sapphire scales ran red with his blood as the injuries tallied up.


"Fall back Shuichang!" Jiang Mu ordered.


The panting Shuichang did not, quickly shooting back "They're on my tail, can't!"


And true enough Jiang Mu could see, whenever Shuichang went left, an enemy water dragon was already moving around that side, the same with right. He was surrounded at the back, his pursuers waiting only for him to tire or turn back before they managed to catch him. But he could not go forward forever. Eventually some enemy dragons spotted him in trouble and moved to assist.


Shuichang found his path blocked by metal dragons and could not turn fast enough anymore. One smashed into him bodily, crushing one of his wings and many of his crew. He managed barely to slip through the beast's grasp in time before he would be torn to shreds by the pursuers, but with his wing so badly damaged he could not extend it. He found himself spiraling downward rapidly, his fins not enough to keep him aloft now that he had lost all control. He called out to Jiang Mu, but there was no reply. The ground raced up rapidly, but with focus Shuichang managed to right his body enough to begin a glide downward. He still crashed into the ground hard, skidding along the ground amidst some other fallen dragons.


Shuichang's battered body lay still, and Jiang Mu was not upon it.

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Ma Yan had not heard the initial call declaring Jiang Mu’s participation in the battle, so engrossed was he in seeking out more enemies on the ground to kill. This was what he had joined the war for, after all. He wanted to be in the thick of combat, slashing and hacking at multiple enemies with one blow. Shuiyan hovered over him as he ran up to enemy soldiers who had fallen from their dragons, or with them, ending their lives neatly if some still thought to cling onto their last excruciating moments.

It was only when he heard Shuichang and Jiang Mu crying out to fall back that he swiftly raised his head in time to see his commander in grave trouble. They were being surrounded by enemy forces, alerted to the presence of the great war leader. The enemies were attacking Shuichang from all sides, and sure enough, the Water Dragon soon fell, plummeting onto the ground with an ominous crash. Ma Yan ran up to the motionless dragon and gasped, “Where’s Commander Jiang?â€

“Over there!†Shuiyan called out, pointing one of her little wings at the enemy Metal Dragons in the air. Jiang Mu had managed to jump nimbly onto the beefy Metal Dragon and was clinging onto her wing in dear life while she tried valiantly to shake him off. Her captain went up to Jiang Mu, sword glinting in the sun, and Jiang Mu must have loosened his grip, for he was falling now, falling from a great height, and Shuichang was down as well.

Then Jiang Mu crashed into a soft but sturdy body and felt himself moving forward rather than downward.

“Commander Jiang, are you alright?†shouted Ma Yan loudly. He and Shuiyan had flown up to catch the warlord, letting him land flat on the softest part of the Water Dragon’s body. “Shuiyan, move us to someplace out of the line of battle, so we can set Commander Jiang down to rest!â€

“Wh-where is that?†asked Shuiyan in a panic. There were dragons fighting all around, and it looked like no place was safe. Even if no enemy dragon specifically aimed for her, she would undoubtedly be caught in a crossfire at some point.

It seemed that staying on the spot was the wrong answer too. An Earth Dragon crept up to them, intending to lash at them with its quick claws. Shuiyan only noticed him too late, when he was already darting up at close range. Such was the talent of Earth Dragons in camouflage. Ma Yan was about to step forward to protect Jiang Mu when a brilliant burst of green and yellow shot past them, shielding them from the Earth Dragon’s attack.

“Muxue!†Ma Yan cried out.

Muxue cocked an eye at him and said, “I see a route across back to camp behind some of our Metal Dragons. It should be safe with them blocking. Take him through that route. I will go down to save Shuichang.â€

Without uttering another word, she dived downward to where Shuichang was. Ma Yan could see streaks of red glinting from her scales as well, but he knew now was not the time to dally. Shuiyan swiped the startled Earth Dragon away and followed Muxue’s advised route.

In the meantime, Muxue settled down beside the immobile Shuichang. He was not dead, she could tell at a glance. She quickly set to work with her aromatherapy, rapidly adding a potent aroma to the environment. It made her feel much better, and she shot a glance at the commanding dragon.

“You must wake up, Long Shuichang,†she said, “for the war needs you. Your people need you. And more importantly, your captain Jiang Mu needs you.â€

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Shuichang cracked open an eye, regaining his senses. "Jiang Mu... where is he?"


Muxue gestured in the direction of Shuiyan, who was deftly escaping through the opening as planned. Shuichang got to his feet but still felt a harsh pain as he tried to spread his wings. While Muxue's efforts stabilized his condition, his wing wouldn't magically heal. He would be grounded for a few days at least.


Muxue explained to Shuichang the situation, and that Jiang Mu was being safely escorted from the battle. "You have our thanks." Shuichang said, inclining his head, "It is heartening to have such reliable soldiers in the aerial force."


Jiang Mu was dazed but conscious, holding on to Shuiyan out of instinct but otherwise quite unaware of his situation.


Fortunately, it seemed the Qiao Ming's reinforcements allowed Chen Wei to push through the enemy and begin to assault Dong Zhuo's own land forces, causing the dragons on the failing flank to pull back to defend. Meanwhile, Sun Jian's forces had broken through the enemy lines on the ground and decimating the enemy. It wasn't long before they collapsed entirely, Sun Jian's forces giving brief chase as they fled, before ceasing and letting the remainder of them go.


The battlefield was more gruesome than the previous time, with far more dead on both sides. Those with minor or no injuries began collecting the injured and sorting through the dead. There was a brief panic as Chen Wei and Qiao Ming discovered nobody knew where Jiang Mu was, but they eventually sighted Shuichang on the ground and ascertained that he was alive.


There was similarly a fuss at the camp as Shuiyan arrived bearing the injured Jiang Mu and news of the chaos of the battle. But soon followed Jade dragon messengers affirming that the battle was won and the camp should move up to occupy the end of the pass. Jiang Mu only got a blurry look at his rescuers as they dropped him off in the care of the camp physicians, before they zoomed off back toward the battlefield.


The aftermath was a slow and dreary process. Wounded dragons were carried by healthier ones one at a time, as were wounded soldiers. When the living were all collected, the dragons scooped up the dead and buried them in a mass grave. The field would still be soaked with dried blood for many months though, just as the landscape was charred by dragon flames and littered with arrows.


However by the day's end the camp had been re-situated at the mouth of the pass, and the wounded captains and dragons were reunited and recovering. Jiang Mu soon shook off his minor injuries, but the injuries to his pride were far greater. Tu Zan had failed. No, Jiang Mu had failed in choosing him. He'd heard of Tu Zan's heroic death protecting the allied forces, and could not fault the man's courage or righteousness. But it was a leader's job to use such people appropriately, and Jiang Mu had allowed him to be placed in the wrong position as a general.


Sun Jian was amicable, in the end not having suffered too much from the lapses of the aerial force. Things had went well on the ground despite the chaos above - Jiang Mu chalked that up to the courage of his soldiers rather than his own decisions. However, they were short on supplies, weapons, and soldiers now, and Sun Jian indicated they could only just hold the pass until fresh supplies arrived and they could march on the capital itself.


The first night Jiang Mu could do little but sleep early, exhausted. But the next day, he awoke with vigour. He wasn't going to wallow in his mistakes. Shuichang had counseled him that a leader must not show such weakness or the men would lose confidence. The battle was won, and so Jiang Mu had to act pleased and as if everything went according to plan. He had the soldiers that were able to do so assemble, and gave a speech about their victory, congratulating them on their mettle in the face of the overwhelming enemy forces. He praised Tu Zan's courage in sacrificing himself to protect the ground forces, and decreed his and his dragon's body be returned to his hometown and buried with honours. He also praised and promoted Ma Yan, "With myself and Shuichang in danger, his unwavering loyalty and courage showed through, and he and Muxue came to our aid without regard for their own safety. They are model soldiers. We have many heroes among us that showed themselves in this past battle, surely once we march on Luoyang, the tyrant Dong Zhuo will cower and surrender immediately!"


Later that day Jiang Mu and Shuichang visited Ma Yan and Muxue personally, checking in on Muxue in particular since Shuichang had noted her own injuries. "I was right to expect great things from you two." he said, "Now that you're an officer with your own squad of men to command, I shall see if you are as promising a leader as fighter. I'll be watching."

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A few hours had passed since the formal announcement of Ma Yan and Muxue’s promotion, yet Ma Yan still felt as if he were in a dream. He lay in bed, crossing his legs and spreading his arms outward, and could do nothing but make booming laughs in some kind of daze. He was in charge of his own squadron! And in such a short time as soldier too!

“Commander Jiang is a wise and impartial leader indeed!†he declared. “We shall serve him most faithfully and help him to win this war, so that his noble vision may guide the ruling of all the nations!â€

“Yes,†said Muxue simply. She had been reclining in a corner, her claws hard at work with a large dragon needle as she practised some embroidery. Ma Yan glanced at her, wondering why she seemed so subdued. Surely this was a cause for more exultation than this?

Before he could ask, though, a light tapping was heard outside the door. Ma Yan opened it and quickly and respectfully admitted Jiang Mu and Long Shuichang, who had come to check on Muxue’s injuries and also personally congratulate them. Muxue calmly set aside her sewing and said that she was much recovered, thanking them for the concern.

"I was right to expect great things from you two." Jiang Mu said, "Now that you're an officer with your own squad of men to command, I shall see if you are as promising a leader as fighter. I'll be watching."

“The credit goes entirely to Leader Ma,†said Muxue. “He fought valiantly atop Shuiyan, who also deserves much mention for putting the country before her fallen captain. Few dragons would’ve been as selfless as she, acknowledging another rider mere minutes after the death of her own. In fact, Ma Yan and Shuiyan complemented each other excellently. I was but a supporter in the whole battle. I beg you pardon my disrespect and ignorance, Commander Jiang, but may I ask that my role be swapped with Shuiyan, who would deserve the promotion better?â€

“What’re you even talking about, you foolish woman?†asked Ma Yan, his eyes widened in shock. And yet Muxue seemed entirely serious, her eyes focused on the ground as she continued speaking, in a trembling voice.

“Muxue knows she has been a burden to Leader Ma, being a Wood Dragon and unsuitable to a role of fighting in the frontlines. After seeing him and Shuiyan fighting, it is the first time I have seen the fire of passion burning in his eyes. I know that this is the best choice for him, so please grant the little wish of a little woman. If- if you’ll excuse me.†She hurriedly left the room as tears started to form in her eyes. Ma Yan looked incredulously at her passing frame, and quickly turned to the commanders.

“Please pardon Muxue’s insolence! She must’ve been dazed from her injuries. Please do not take anything that she has just said to heart!â€


Outside, the sky had darkened. Muxue stood in the Crescent Pavilion, looking wistfully at the night sky. It looked almost the same as the night sky she had seen back in the mountains, when she as a hatchling waited for her father to return. Her father, unlike Ma Yan, had abandoned her. Maybe abandonment was indeed the right thing to do.

“The moon in the sky watches the people on the land. It sees their meet-ups, their partings, their lives and their inevitable deaths,†she muttered.

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Shuichang rumbled in thought, "It does indeed." he approached alongside Muxue, motioning for her to remain at ease, "But we watch the moon in the sky also, even if we cannot fathom what life it must have."


He waited a moment before continuing, "What we see is not always simple to compass. A fire is useful when employed to warm a hearth, light your way, or to mold metal. But one blazing wildly, not tempered with purpose and control, is a danger; just as easily burning friends as foes. You are the temperance to Ma Yan's fire. He will only accomplish great things with your guidance and support. Your request to swap with Shuiyan is denied - do not suggest such a reckless idea again."


Shuichang smiled ever so subtly as Muxue looked at him. "You seem to view the starry sky with a keen eye, what do you know of the astrological phenoma?"


With business settled and Shuichang confident he had repaired Muxue's waning confidence, he did not raise the subject again, and instead the pair spent much of the night discussing the stars and movements of weather and the sky. Shuichang was most interested in inquiring about Muxue's scholarly knowledge, and was quite pleased to find her an engaging and learned conversation partner.


They parted as a changing of the guard alerted them to the knowledge that midnight had crept up on them both, but both knew they would be meeting again for many more evening talks under the watchful moon in future.




The coalition forces held the pass and waited for supplies. And waited. And waited. Days later, there was no sign. Dragon scouts sent to check returned with news that there were no supplies en route at all.


"That worm Yuan Shu!" Sun Jian growled during the leaders' meeting. "He's withholding our supplies on purpose, he doesn't want us to proceed and be the heroes to recapture the capital!"


"Surely not," Jiang Mu replied, "We all have the same goal: the defeat on Dong Zhuo. Yuan Shu was placed in charge of supplies, surely he can't be so blatantly shirking his duties."


"What other explanation can there be?" said Sun Ce, Sun Jian's eldest son, "The path is secure, and it has been more than long enough, with no sign of anything on its way to us. If by some chance this is not deliberate, then it is the most gross mismanagement."


"Either way, we cannot wait here much longer." Sun Jian said, resting a hand on some scrolls on his desk. "We don't have enough provisions to hold on indefinitely. If we don't get the supplies soon we'll have to retreat or starve. And we haven't even got enough weapons and armour for all our soldiers anymore; if we're attacked now we can't fight at full force."


Jiang Mu stood up resolutely, "I'll send someone to address Yuan Shu directly then. Someone to scold him for this unacceptable delay on our behalf, to let everyone know it, and to force him to deliver the supplies."




That person was Ma Yan. Jiang Mu called him in after the meeting to explain the situation to him, which was otherwise being glossed over by command to prevent any damage to the army morale.


"I can't send the timid sort of person that most of our messengers are. I need someone who is bold enough to shame Yuan Shu loudly and force him into a corner, and accept no more delays. Besides, with the shortage of weapons for the army, we need the warrior dragons to help defend this place - the situation is so dire we must choose to keep a sword rather than a life." he said grimly. "Both myself and Sun Jian are counting on you, Ma Yan. You must return to us with the supplies we need."


Shuichang made sure to catch Muxue before they left, while Ma Yan was off relieving himself. "Remember what I told you that other night. While Ma Yan's fiery nature is what we need to intimidate Yuan Shu and force his hand, we must rely on you to reign him in if he goes too far. It will be no good if Yuan Shu is given cause to arrest Ma Yan or accuse him of insubordination."

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Muxue came back to Ma Yan’s room at midnight. The man, never one to forgo sleep even in the most demanding of perils, was already snoring away, a beefy hand resting on his stomach. It had not taken him long to get used to the officer’s bunk. His few meagre possessions were scattered on the table, not important enough to be stored safely. Muxue trotted up to them and set them aside on a shelf before curling up in her pen to go to sleep. She too was weary after this emotional day.

They did not speak further on the matter the next day. Ma Yan hadn’t known what to say, and Muxue had made no mention of the swap with Shuiyan again. She still wasn’t looking him in the eye when they conversed though, but Ma Yan was content as long as the present situation was settled. He certainly did not want to go looking for trouble on his own.

A few days later, the matter was rightfully forgotten in favour of a more pressing military issue – Yuan Shu had been withholding supplies to them, and Ma Yan had been tasked to get him to follow through with the plan. Ma Yan nodded confidently at the instruction.

“You can leave it to me, Commander! I’ll wring that dishonourable fellow’s neck till he hands us those supplies!â€


Muxue had been waiting outside the bunk for Ma Yan to finish his preparations when she met Shuichang again. He hastily dismissed her greeting and spoke his mind.

"Remember what I told you that other night. While Ma Yan's fiery nature is what we need to intimidate Yuan Shu and force his hand, we must rely on you to reign him in if he goes too far. It will be no good if Yuan Shu is given cause to arrest Ma Yan or accuse him of insubordination."

“Yes, Commander,†she said simply.

As Shuichang turned to leave, satisfied that there was nothing else to be said, Muxue turned to look at his retreating figure, her gaze lingering until he left.


They set off in the late morning, hoping to make haste before the sun reached its highest point. Yuan Shu’s encampment was last spotted behind a group of tall mountains not far from base, and so it took only a short flight for them to reach its finely decorated courtyard, with its subtle ornaments of fine gold and neatly trimmed bushes. Muxue settled at the foot of the door and demanded an audience with Yuan Shu.

“If it isn’t the great Leader Ma!†said Yuan Shu with a hearty laugh. “May I know what wind has brought you here today?â€

“I am here on behalf of General Jiang Mu,†Ma Yan declared staunchly, “to request your supplies be delivered at once to the armies which need them.â€

“Oh, supplies? But they are on their way…†Yuan Shu trailed off with some confusion.

“You can spare those filthy lies,†said Ma Yan furiously. “Our armies are all hungry and in need of reinforcements. The scouts have seen none of your men. You must be trying to hoard those supplies for your own selfish reasons! If we ever lose this war because of you, rest assured that I shall come at you personally!â€

“Leader Ma!†murmured Muxue uneasily, and Ma Yan frowned and kept silent. Yuan Shu laughed nervously.

“Ah, I see our new leader has taken it upon himself to accept full responsibility for what becomes of me!†he said. “May I know if that is also the wish of your Commander Jiang?â€

“It is not,†Ma Yan said after a pause, “but he wishes me to go back bearing good news. I believe our nations are all co-operating to win this war, and any outlier is akin to a traitor. I have every right to exterminate traitors for the benefit of my nation and my warlord.†His eyes gleamed.

Yuan Shu too looked back at him. Finally, he spread out his arms.

“I have still no idea what became of the first troupe of supplies,†he said, “but I will send a second group today. And you may rest assured that nothing will befall them this time.â€

Ma Yan nodded.

“I hope you keep to your word.â€


After Ma Yan had taken his leave, Yuan Shu let out a sigh.

“That is a very righteous, but equally frightening, leader he has there,†he muttered.

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