Chapter 35: The Battle of Shi Ting

A bleeding Rafaela calmly parried a giant needle from Luciela's clawed finger as she skidded away, her greaves mired in sludge and flotsam from the fenland. She breathed quietly, shrouding her Yoki from her sister so that she could buy time to recover. Luciela had outclassed her in almost every respect. She hated to concede that, but her Awakened sister was stronger, faster, and could regenerate wounds quicker than she could inflict them. I will not lose, she thought grimly, rising and raising her sword in a defensive guard. I will fight her to the end… and finish this agony.

She had moved to charge Luciela when the unusually loud rustling of twigs and fallen, dead leaves caught her attention. She looked up to the low cliff overlooking the quagmire and glimpsed a female wearing a Claymore's ensemble – but she was a literal tot of a female: a mere girl, one that had not even passed prepubescence. Her blonde hair covered much of her face, and was even longer than her cape. The short child was physically frail and delicate, but the single eye that stared out from her mass of hair bespoke of a vast potential, a power that could tower over all other warriors. Rafaela surreptitiously raised her eyebrow. Why had she not felt her Yoki? Just what was this mere lass capable of?

From the darkness, she spoke quietly, almost incoherently, her hand pressing tentatively against a tree. "The enemy… is here…"

Luciela had noticed her, too. The Abyssal One's eyes turned sarcastic. "Yes, darling, of course. Run along now, there is important business at hand."

The little girl ignored Luciela. Or perhaps… she was already addressing the Awakened Being. Her lips parted again, her immature voice soft and cautious, as if awaiting permission from a lenient guardian. "Kill… Mama's… enemy…"

Rafaela's eyes narrowed. "Who else is there?" she asked, sensing another presence of Yoki, although it was extremely weak, far feebler than that of the child's.

An attractive brunette clad in a Claymore's uniform emerged from the shroud of the trees, raising her sword and pointing it at Luciela. She was an unusual spectacle; her hair was certainly not blonde and her irises not chrome. That she was donning the grey uniform that could only be bestowed upon those with silver eyes was a rare phenomenon. Judging from her young countenance, she could not have been of a high rank, either. "On the orders of the King of Wei, we are here to finish the task started by the Shu-Wu alliance," she said, rather nervously.

Rafaela masked her surprised expression while Luciela growled impatiently. "King of Wei? Orders? What are you blabbering about, silly wench?"

The brunette's voice grew stronger. "Dweller of the South, Luciela. As a member of the Wei Special Hunter Unit, I hereby order your execution at the new Number Four's hands – Miata."

*

Shi Ting Highland

Clad in his horsetailed helm and his heroic light-blue armour, Xu Huang could not tear his eyes off the two slightly built ladies that stood before him, their backs turned to his face. So these were the most powerful so-called Claymores of the Continent, the twins who had been trained to exploit the Soul Link. He closed his eyes briefly, remembering his King Cao Cao's words: "They seem mindless, but that is merely because their minds are buried underneath years of 'will.' If you remove that 'will,' fragmentary glimpses of their personhoods will emerge. Whether or not you choose to do this, I will leave it to your discretion."

"My Lord, your instructions are far too cryptic," he muttered, shaking his head. Apart from that curious consideration, there was also the intelligence that Wei officer, Cao Xiu, had been cut off in Wan Castle by Zhou Fang, a Wu general. Cao Cao's offensive had been halted as a force of seven hundred thousand Wu defenders lay siege to Wan Castle, determined to turnaround the Wei invasion by crippling Cao Xiu's vanguard. Xu Huang glanced outwards at the distant fortress as smoke began to rise from the parapets. He raised a fist into the air. If they did not hurry, Cao Xiu and his retainers would be cut down. "We must rescue Master Cao Xiu, who is besieged at Wancheng! At the same time, we will punish Wu's gall and double the force of our offensive! Charge! We must break through Shi Ting and deliver a deathblow on Wu!"

The army turned to march, and the cavalry surged up the hillside, galloping towards the besieged Wancheng. There were no enemy Claymores that leaped down from the cliffs to hinder their progress. For a moment it seemed as if Xu Huang would ride to the forefront, but it was not his intention to follow the main advance guard. He turned to Alicia and Beth as they broke ranks with the infantry to face the large cloud of dust that had begun to whirl past the southern prairie. "My ladies. They're coming, the Wu-Shu allies. Come with me. Your former comrades in Wu and Shu surely know that you are here with us. Judging from the approaching detachment of horses, Lord Sima Yi's plan to draw them away from the main vanguard must have succeeded." His muscles tensed in anticipation. "Our primary objective now is to defeat the allied commanders."

The two sisters nodded in acknowledgment. He paused, looking at Beth. "So… you will use your Soul Link?" he queried hesitantly.

"Stand aside when it activates," responded Beth mechanically, staring at the approaching Shu-Wu attackers. "I will control Alicia as effectively as I can until the enemy is silenced."

He stared at her. "Beth…"

"They are coming," she interrupted, closing her eyes. "I am initiating the Soul Link. I only require your permission, Lord High General."

Xu Huang nodded uneasily. "Very well, Beth. I trust your expertise in this matter.

"Have your sister Awaken."

*

The Wei forces had been hemmed in and surrounded. Jia Kui and Cao Xiu fought desperately, determined to punch through the Wu defences beyond the castle and reunite with their rear flank. But that was not Miria's foremost concern. As they urged on their horses to the lowlands that winded around Wancheng, she raised a hand, stopping Tabitha, Yuma, and Jean in their tracks. A powerful Yoki had permeated the air, devouring Wancheng and dispersing outwards in every direction. And from the immediate distance, on top a hillside, loomed the dark form of a relatively small Awakened Being with curved, bladed scythes as hands. Her neck was grotesquely elongated, and even her hair had sharpened into a black-grey carapace of armour around her head.

"What… what is that?" murmured Yuma, her silver eyes apprehensive.

"It can only be what Miria and Flora spoke of," said Jean, her jaw dropping open in awe. "Number One, Alicia – the only warrior in history that can Awaken with the aid of her twin sister."

"We are at a total disadvantage," advised Miria tersely. "We don't have the strength to take her on alone, nor have the others arrived to reinforce us. But our chances aren't impossible. If we can somehow divert Alicia's attention and strike at Beth, Alicia cannot hold her Awakened state. And from the documents that I stole before I arrived in China… if Beth requires the entirety of her concentration to keep Alicia's sanity in check, then a momentary slip in concentration will sever the Soul Link." She licked her dry lips as Alicia's silhouette fell upon the plains. "Those two have never fought warriors who relied on teamwork, have they?"

"What do you mean, Captain?" asked Tabitha.

"That they have only fought Awakened Beings up till now. If my deductions are correct, they are not suited for combat against their own fellow soldiers. Follow me!" Miria hurtled towards the advancing Alicia, her speed increasing by the heartbeat. Dust and sand were hurled into the air, as Alicia's cold, soulless face grew larger and larger. "The three of you! Incapacitate Beth while I occupy Alicia – "

Xu Huang's eyes glowed an azure tint as he raised his halberd. "Here I come!" He lunged and leaped from the cliff, thrusting the end of his polearm into the soil. An earthquake split apart the rocky landscape, and the Miria was flung back, rolling painfully along the dirty ground from the unexpected shockwave. "I see through your stratagem, Shu partisan. But I won't let you get past me. If you think you are worthy…" He glanced back at Beth. So far, her face did not betray any strain. Good. He nodded challengingly at them. "Face me like the warrior you claim to be!"

For now, Alicia enjoyed the advantage – already, she had torn through the support troops behind Jean. Horses and people alike were hurled upwards and scattered across the grasslands. Xu Huang crouched in front of Beth vigilantly and engaged Jean, Tabitha and Yuma in melee combat. He glanced up as they raised their swords. He quickly counterattacked with a spin of Destroyer, and the powerful swing cut into Yuma's abdomen and Tabitha's arm. They betrayed their pain with a loud cry, and Xu Huang seized the advantage and initiated another shockwave that sent the two junior warriors crashing into the side of the cliff. Miria swore to herself. So he had planned for this – to have Alicia annihilate the enemy while he protected Beth. If only the others were here, she could easily counteract Xu Huang's strategy, but for now, the four of them would have to make do. "Stay away until you're completely healed!" she ordered Tabitha and Yuma as she raced towards Alicia. "They are not your opponents," she growled at her. "Now fight me!"

Her Phantom Mirage surrounded Alicia and began to pummel at her carapace armour, slashing and cleaving at where the connected plates were most vulnerable. The Awakened Claymore shrugged it off, her bladed arms suddenly elongating and cutting away Miria's illusions in two clean strokes. As Miria reeled from the unexpectedly swift turnaround, Alicia's arms began to slash around her, cocooning her in a flurry of deadly cuts. Miria managed to block her frontal attacks through her superb reflexes and stamina, but felt two massive, bladed appendages cleaving into her back, far heavier than any greatsword. She gasped and toppled from her airborne position. She left behind a trailing pillar of blood, and landed heavily on the ground before rolling back up, sweating and traumatized. Alicia possessed far superior speed and strength, and already she could feel the full strength of the scythes that bashed against her sword. Only her remaining Mirages enabled her to keep pace with Alicia's unbelievable speed, and just barely. She parried a flurry of demonic slashing from Alicia, but felt her right arm leave her shoulder as it was cleanly sliced away.

She doesn't hold back at all. And she's been taught to finish battles as quickly as possible.

Yet more pain shot through her nerves, but she could not let that distract her as she danced away from another angry slash. Alicia was relentless, and Xu Huang now had forced Jean on the back foot too. Miria's Mirages flickered as she felt her speed dying. She grunted as a large wound spurted from her thigh. Alicia had lacerated her leg. Another light step back, and she only just managed to leap away from an attempt at decapitation. She skidded along the ground, fatigue overcoming her as she panted loudly and stared up at the cold, pupil-less eyes of Alicia.

It had been utter folly to hope that the Sixth could ever survive against the First, let alone hold her off. This was no battle. This was a lion toying with a mouse.

It's been several days since we left Nanman now, thought Miria desperately. When are Clare's retinue coming? Was Luciela too much for them? If everything had gone as Yue Ying planned… shouldn't they be almost here by now with the promised reinforcements?

Xu Huang ran Jean through and kicked a frantic Tabitha away, flinging her into a trembling Yuma. The three warriors lay on the ground, on the verge of defeat, and Miria herself could not hold back Alicia for much longer. Gritting her teeth in agony at her pierced body and bloody shoulder, she looked back briefly, looking for any faint hint of support. A cloud of dust caught her eye, and her heart leaped for audacious hope. It had been kicked up in the distance by galloping hooves and sprinting feet that were just as swift. That could only mean…

The sandstorm was approaching, fast. From its shroud leaped out three silver-eyed warriors, somersaulting in almost perfect synchronization with each other. "It didn't take us long to catch up with you," laughed Helen, grinning as she landed, and then propelled herself upwards again, slashing at Alicia. Deneve joined in the attack, momentarily catching the Awakened woman off-guard with an attack from behind.

"Tch. You had friends coming?" said Xu Huang, his face turning even grimmer than before. "Lord Sima Yi did not foresee the rest of you to survive Luciela."

Clare's Quicksword, astonishingly, managed to keep pace with Alicia's cutting, if only for a brief moment, before the weaker warrior was flung away. "How are you doing, Miria?" she asked, as she skidded to a halt beside her.

"Bad," admitted the Plains General, her voice a quiet whisper. "I'm glad our timing worked out as planned. I need you to help me divert Alicia's attention while Jean cuts down Beth. And once the Soul Link is disrupted, the twins will be as good as dead." Zhou Tai landed beside the Plains General, silent and brooding even as he drew his sword. "Where is Cynthia, admiral?" she asked.

His eyes clouded over. "In the main camp, recovering from her wound."

"The half-Yoma is here?" growled Xu Huang. "Why – " he gritted his teeth as the other lunged and flung Duskstrike against Destroyer, screaming sparks dancing off metal as they struggled against the other's weight. "Any more reinforcements and we'll be beaten back – " He grunted in pain as Clare's sword slashed across his back. He staggered away from them. Has Cao Xiu not withdrawn from Wancheng yet? It would be best to retreat now

But there was something amiss. He glanced at the scattered, dispersed allied formation: it was bizarre. He could smell a dastardly ploy. The realization dawned on him too late, but he grasped their intentions only when it occurred to him that with their superior numbers, they had occupied Alicia and diverted his own attention from Beth. Now, the Number Two stood alone, focused on containing Alicia's Awakening.

She was unacceptably susceptible to attack.

"It's your turn, Jean!" cried Miria, her Phantom Mirage dashing circles around Alicia. Alicia could not take Xu Huang's place, for Clare and Zhou Tai had forced her on the defensive. "You're the key to my strategy. Forget about Number One! Take the fight to Beth herself!"

Impossible, thought Xu Huang wildly, but his greatest fear had at last eventuated. Breaking away from her comrades, Jean sprinted towards the younger twin, wind rushing past her cropped hair. Beth bit her lip as she the loudening footsteps neared her, but she paid her thumping heart no heed. She stayed put, ensuring that her sister's Awakened state remained stable, paying no heed to the approaching Wu warrior. Why didn't she call out to me for help?! thought Xu Huang furiously to himself. "Beth! Evade!" he thundered, angry and alarmed. "What are you doing?! Escape!"

She did not reply.

"GO, JEAN!" roared Clare. "Finish this!"

"Beth, you fool! Do you want to die?!" he bellowed again. "Run!"

The younger of the twins gritted her teeth, refusing to budge. Her eyes remained tightly shut, determined to regulate Alicia's Awakened form safely, at all costs. But it would prove ultimately futile. Jean roared, her Drill Strike crushing into Beth's armour like a knife stabbing into the carapace of an insect. She twisted her blade into Beth's shoulder, and the latter's eyes finally shot open, and she screamed like a wounded animal, shuddering in confusion and agony. With the psychic bond hastily severed, Alicia began to lose control. She staggered away from Clare and Miria and trembled, her expressionless face shaking as the Yoki around her imploded, consuming the nearby vicinity in a sphere of dark entropy. The cloud of demonic chi disappeared slowly and unhurriedly, revealing a burnt and charred Alicia, who trembled manically, froth bubbling from her bleeding lips. Her silver eyes were bloodshot, and her unique suit of armour sizzled with excruciating heat from the abrupt telepathic dismissal.

The Organization's First had been reduced to a mental and psychic cripple.

The wounded and disorientated Beth collapsed to her knees as Jean leaped away and raised her sword for the finishing blow. Xu Huang roughly shoved Clare away and lifted Destroyer, unleashing a furious ground stamp that hurled the very earth upwards, sending the Wu fighters and their allies careening away. "Don't get cocky, silver-eyed warriors," he growled. "You're not the only ones who possess extraordinary powers." Blue chi suddenly swirled from the ground as he stomped his foot once more, and a tremor shook the bedrock of the terrain. His skin grew darker, and his hair suddenly spilled freely past his shoulders. The sky momentarily darkened to a pure blackness as he began to… change.

"Witness my strength," he growled. Six glowing wings sprouted from behind him, and a sweeping aura of martial chi struck into the void of the heavens. The lines of his armour shimmered with an ethereal sapphire. A maelstrom of ebony and azure power crackled through the firmament. His feet left the ground, and he flew into the cobalt sky. An orb of light shrieked from his open palm and blasted into the ground, scattering the allies once more.

"What… what is this?!" cried Jean, shielding herself with a defensive stance. "I… I've never seen anything like this!" Clare gritted her teeth in silent awe, and Deneve covered her eyes from the sandstorm that he had stirred. Helen caught the exhausted Miria in her arms.

"This is my Zhen Xing form, an attainment of strength that only true warriors can reach!" The Wei commander hurtled into the air and spun at a blinding speed, his wings flaring with cerulean light. He dodged a lightning bolt from Zhou Tai's blade and sent a charge of his own at him. Zhou Tai rolled aside as Clare leaped up, attempting to engage him. But he simply shot past her and caught the burnt Alicia in his right arm. Jean leaped upwards, but unlike him, she was flightless, and he simply pushed her away, smashing her into the ground. He conjured another bolt of energy and threw it into the sand. As the smoke obscured the vision of the allies, he seized his chance to sweep up the convulsing Beth along with her sister. He caught the shaking woman in his left arm and soared back up, away from the wild swings of Jean, Helen and Clare.

"This power…" whispered Miria. "It is something… only true warriors can reach?"

He hovered above the battlefield, observing the astonished allies silently. Sweat poured down his patterned face as he glared down at Beth. "You fool," he shouted, his angry spittle dashing her astonished face. "You and your sister are the future of Wei. We can't lose you to a moment of foolhardy fear, or whatever that was lurking inside your unfathomable mind!" He shook her roughly. "You knew well you were vulnerable! Why did you not flee?!"

Her tears brimming with pain, Beth still refused to speak. After several moments of uncomfortable stillness, his glowing eyes softened. "If you are in danger or distress, you must at least call for help, even in the midst of an important commission. It is the duty and honour of comrades to assist you."

A brief minute of stunned silence, and then came a squeaking, timid voice. "Lord High General," whispered Beth, her eyes darting from left to right, looking anywhere save his face.

He turned as a new cloud of dust gave way to a small detachment of Wei cavalrymen. An armoured officer stopped and shouted up at him, his voice eager but balanced with concern. "Master Xu! Commander Cao Xiu has been rescued, but we've suffered heavy losses. Wancheng has been successfully evacuated. We will now give our strength to cover your retreat here."

"Good work, commandant Jia Kui," replied Xu Huang from the sky, as the horsemen moved to block Miria and Zhou Tai's path. "I entrust the protection of this immediate area to you." He looked at the bleeding and exhausted Claymores of Shu and Wu once more. That they had survived against Alicia and Beth was a testament to their extraordinary tenacity and will to survive. Furthermore, they had outmanoeuvred and bested Alicia and Beth through Miria's strategy of teamwork. That alone merited praise. "An excellent display of skill," he conceded, glancing at the armless Miria. "We shall fight again."

Clare interrupted. "You're not getting away – "

"Oh? Watch me, tyro."

And with that, his wings flared again, and he hurtled up further, far beyond the reach of the allies, holding close the limp twins. The wind shrieked past him as he flew higher into the blue atmosphere, in the direction of the Wei main camp. High above the clouds, his eyes softened in compassion as he glanced down at the women tucked in his arms. They had fallen into unconsciousness, and their bodies had gone limp in his embrace.

These twins… "You tried to do so much on your own," he murmured regretfully.

"Rest now."