Chapter 33: The Southern Battles: Part I

Xuchang

The esteemed and respected Sima Yi had come a long way since becoming promoted to Field Marshal. From hermit to official of the Wei Kingdom, his ambition easily matched that of his master's. Only the intensely authoritarian personality of Cao Cao and Cao Pi held his wild fantasies in check. But he never realized that such a conception was mistaken. After all, Cao Cao treated his officers like family, and he was especially lenient and gentle with Galatea, although every soul in the palace understood why. Either way, Sima Yi was still pleased with himself, having ascended to the Wei Kingdom's top military administrative rank, sitting at the zenith as one of Cao Cao's most trusted advisors.

Today, he had been recalled from the frontlines at Fan Castle to return to the capital. Standing before the Imperial Chancellor and the Number Three and Number Five that flanked him, the slender man was garbed in clothes befitting a ghost, the purple attire as sinister as his eyes and his smile. Armoured claws protected the ends of his gloved fingers, and his appearance caused him to resemble a being that had been mothered by a demon. His serpentine voice pierced into the chamber, his silky accent brimming with schemes and wily trickery. "I recommend that Rafaela lead a detachment of elite troops to intercept Luciela's forces. We'll catch our enemies off-balance and strike Luciela down. Then, we'll crush the Wu forces at Shi Ting, before cutting off the Shu forces attempting to break past the Central Plains." He raised his head to look at Cao Cao. "In other words, this is the first phase of our three-front war. If we can annihilate the enemy in the strategic locations of Shi Ting and Wu Zhang Plains, our strategic advantage will be doubled. And then, we can overwhelm our two rivals through sheer power and numerical efficiency. They simply do not possess the resources or population for a protracted war. But we do, and that is a significant advantage. Use it!"

Cao Cao nodded sullenly. "Your tactics are as ingeniously merciless as ever, Sima Yi. Send orders to my son and General Xu Huang to mobilize their hosts. Rafaela. Select the troops and officers you need, or go alone. I trust your judgment. You will depart in two days." He paused. "I assume you'll want to reach Luciela before Shu and Wu. Do not let them pre-empt you."

Rafaela nodded silently, and bowed out with Sima Yi. They disappeared from the convocation chamber, and the moment they could not be seen, Galatea spoke. "Rafaela will do a much better job than I can, won't she?" she muttered. "She won't go soft on those idiots. Those silly girls in Shu and Wu."

"I do not know if Rafaela will see them as a friend or foe. But the first stage of our strategy has been implemented," muttered Cao Cao. "What remains is to observe how Shu and Wu will react." His rested his chin on his clasped hands. "So, what will you do? Grand General of Shu, Huang Yue Ying?

"What will you do, brave silver-eyed women… that is, those of you who stand against me?"

*

Swamps of Nanman

The advance guard had been annihilated. No matter how strong, how brave, or how suicidal they were, they could not match the unbelievable head count of the Awakened Beings. There were more tentacles and claws than there were trees. The jungle had been felled entirely, replaced by unnatural, hellish abominations. Unspeakably large, they looked upon the defenders like a cruel boy looks down on scurrying ants. As the humans trembled haplessly, the ground shook with them, as if the Way itself felt threatened.

"Our vanguard and flank… against one hundred of those Awakened Beings?!" whispered one of the corporals. "This… is impossible."

"How did they even manage to come here, in such huge numbers?!" cried a footman. "We… we didn't sign up for this!"

The creatures hissed in anticipation. "Our Lady must have passed through the counties here already, yes?" asked the apparent leader, a rotting husk of an overgrown beetle.

A tiger-headed Awakened Being laughed. "Then the rest is ours for the taking!" it snarled, reaching for the Shu enforcers. Its deadly appendage smashed into a phalanx of spearmen, and as the comrades behind them thrust their spears upwards, another demon's foot smashed past their shields, breaking their formation and sending several dozen men hurtling into the air. Another counterattack was nullified by the creature's gaseous, noxious breath, halting the charging infantry platoon and sending its members crashing to the ground. They gasped, struggling to raise themselves, but their bodies would not obey. The toxins had immobilized them. Resistance had been rendered futile. This would be as far as they would go, for true despair had been visited upon them.

"When… when are the silver-eyed ladies arriving?! And… and where is the Grand General's battalion?" The soldiers fled, dropping their weapons in a possessed panic and scattering as the shadow of the Awakened Being's hand descended. "Why… why are there so many of them?!" screamed one of the surviving victims. He closed his eyes, dreading a most agonizing death. "Heaven… why have you cursed our beautiful world with this blight of devils?!"

But the final blow never came. The Awakened Being screamed and slumped lucklessly as nine Claymore swords pierced into its head. The dead demon's compatriots roared in anger and bewilderment as these nine swords' owners landed smoothly on the swampland. Grey capes billowed in the putrid wind. Silver armour shone in the burning sunlight.

"This is going to be a difficult fight," said Clare quietly, raising herself from her crouch.

"Ha! It's nothing we can't handle!" laughed Helen, flicking the blood off her sword.

"Not with so many comrades by our side," affirmed Deneve.

"Beware," cautioned Miria. "We may require the firepower of Yue Ying's unit for backup."

Cynthia glanced at Tabitha and nodded, raising her Claymore alongside Yuma. "We'll never back down!" cried the Rising Dragon General, and they quickly shifted their stances to face the looming Awakened Beings.

"My apologies for the delay," said Flora, landing on the ground beside her friends and sheathing her greatsword in preparation for a Windcutter attack. "We shall now commence the purging of these demons from southern China!"

*

The nine silver-eyed warriors stood against Luciela's hordes, blocking their passage to the advance guard. It was just as well that they would bear the brunt of the onslaught. The enemy numbers were staggering to the point that no normal army could face them without suffering a Pyrrhic victory. "I've never seen this many Awakened Beings in one area," muttered Deneve, adjusting her sword in a defensive, overhead stance.

"Indeed, this region itself is curious," added Flora. On their way here, they had encountered peculiar cesspools and tar pits amidst the swamplands and gnarled trees, as if the land had slowly twisted into a horrid reflection of the Yoma nightmare in China. Was it due to Luciela's presence, or perhaps her black magic?

"This is Nanman," replied Yue Ying, dismounting her steed. Her battalion had followed closely behind the Claymores, and as one, they loaded their bladed bows with magazines of unignited ammunition. "An uncharted region of China, and a most peculiar place, foreign even to the Han Emperors of old." She cocked Crescent Sapphire. "Keep your eyes on their battalion leader," she said calmly, looking at the beetle-like strossus that had enfolded its carapace of armour around itself. "He must be the strongest of them all. We don't want – "

Her eyes widened as Yuma was suddenly hurled back, crashing into the rocky ground. Yuma could only gasp in reply at the concerned cries of her friends as she managed to flip back up, somehow. She moved forward, but winced, her hand reflexively moving to her side. What had happened? Were her ribs broken? She fell back down on one knee, panting heavily. "Be… behind you," she wheezed.

Tabitha and Jean rolled out of the way as a thick, gargantuan tentacle flailed wildly, smashing away several Shu corpses. "How dare you mock me?!" snarled a reptilian Awakened Being, beating its chest menacingly. "I'll show you the taste of true terror!"

"Warriors of Shu and Wu," commanded Yue Ying, firing her bladed bow. "Commence hostilities." Seven fireballs shot towards the towering monsters in an encompassing arc. Five of them managed to blast into an arachnid creature that fell from the dead trees, slamming loudly and sickeningly onto the ground, its eight legs struggling briefly before settling in death. Two of her missiles struck the ground uselessly as the Awakened leader… teleported? – And skidded away, clicking its repulsive mandibles disapprovingly. Her eyes narrowed. "The monsters have improved abilities? Why didn't we know of this earlier?"

Clare, Helen and Deneve supported Miria as they charged into the army of roaring Yoma that had emerged from behind the Awakened Beings. They ripped through the mob, the swords swinging in a furious dance. Yoma were no longer any match for them. They didn't even require Yoki activation to deal with these riffraff. Their skilful teamwork overwhelmed the clumsy, shoddy organization of Luciela's hordes. They roared and flailed, but they were no match for the warriors who had lived, fought and trained in China for two years. Clare gritted her teeth as their unit tore through the beasts that had dared to violate the people of a distant nation… as if raping women of the Continent was not enough. They would pay for their temerity. They would pay for their cruelty.

Yes, the Claymore sword was a far more brutal way of dispensing justice.

"Begin bombardment!" roared one of Yue Ying's corporals. The swamp shook with incinerating fire as the bridge of missiles slammed into the advancing mob of Awakened Beings. Three flailed and fell from the hailstorm of missiles, but four took their place, their jowls dripping with venom. The Crescent Wardens fired another barrage of fireballs, momentarily overcoming the Continent's scourge. Clare's pupils stretched vertically, and she roared, leaping up into the air and hacking furiously at one of the blinded Awakened Beings. Flora joined her, her Windcutter slashing deep, angry welts into the creature's flesh. Bleeding profusely, it bellowed for its comrades to aid it, and two scythe-like hands almost severed Clare's body in two. She and Flora skidded back as Helen and Deneve dashed forward to cover their retreat.

"This guy's a tough one. Well, looks like we don't need to hold back, then!" sneered Helen, her arm elongating. It elastically parried a claw attacking her, and she sprinted beside Deneve, leaping high into the sky and pushing her sword against a reptilian "crocodile" that roared with infernal rage. Its strength was monstrous even as Deneve supported her. "You goddamn freak," growled Helen. "Why are there such powerful ones here?!"

"You don't need to know," gloated the demonic nightmare. "It doesn't matter to me… or to you." It licked its lips. "Now… prepare yourselves for death!" It suddenly shrieked, lunging. Its clawed fists burst into fire, meeting the relentless fireballs from Yue Ying and her support troops. The Wu Firetroopers behind the first wave of infantry ignited their flamethrowers, immolating the surrounding marshes and trapping the Awakened Beings within a colossal ring of fire. The swamp became a panorama of dazzling crimson and sinister black as the Claymores moved in and activated the full extent of their Yoki powers. But the reptilian demon seemed to have… adapted to Yue Ying's strategy, and it advanced, coming dangerously close to pre-empting the first attack by the Shu phalanxes.

But that was not the only peril. A surreptitious tendril had slid out from the beetle demon's stick arm. The leader of this particular horde of Awakened Beings was evidently quicker, stronger, and more cunning than any of its predecessors. Before anybody could shout a warning, the tendril shot towards Cynthia's head. Her eyes widened as she held up her sword to block. But was she too late – ?

She gritted her teeth, preparing to pour all her energy into healing herself in the event that she really did end up impaled. Still, her chances of survival were hardly promising. "They've grown this strong in such a short time?"

"Then let me help."

A patterned broadsword suddenly sliced the tendril in half, and it burst into flames as it writhed on the ground in sentient agony. The gargantuan beetle shifted back as a tall, black-armoured man crouched in front of Cynthia, flicking purple blood off his blade's tip. "Are you alright?" came her beloved's husky voice.

"Tai!" cried Cynthia in joy. "You've come with reinforcements as agreed!"

The reptilian, fire-vomiting Awakened Being suddenly shrieked in pain, and as if it had not given enough surprises already, it slammed to the ground, dead. The earth shook from its impact. Standing atop its pierced neck was a silver-armoured warrior, who had plunged his weapon through his foe and sent a surge of enchanted electricity through its hapless body. "Another has fallen to my spear!" proclaimed Zhao Yun, twirling Dragon Spike in his hands. "My Ladies! Let us launch a counterattack together!"

"Lord Zhou Tai! Master Zhao Yun!" Yue Ying's eyes flashed in renewed determination. "My husband – ?"

"Lord Zhuge Liang's unit has defeated the enemies threatening our flank and rear," said Zhao Yun. He leaped into the air, shooting up twenty feet, and thrust his spear into the eye of another swampland enemy. "And now, it's our turn! We must defeat as many until the main force arrives!"

Flora and Yue Ying glanced at each other and smiled. "My sister," said the Grand General, "now is the time to show them our strength. We'll finish this in one swift blow and win our King a magnificent victory!"

The allied warriors hurtled towards the Awakened Beings like shooting stars. They would bring them all down. No fear, no doubts.

No regrets.