Chapter 36: Humanity's Awakening
The two armies had momentarily retired to their respective fortresses, having reached an unspoken agreement to allow each other time to bury their dead, heal the wounded, and prepare for the following morning's skirmishes. Lu Xun's plan to have Cao Xiu cut down had failed, but Wei morale had also fallen dramatically from the loss of Wancheng. Either way, there would occur one heroic struggle tomorrow before both factions withdrew, either in defeat or victory. To go beyond that limit was pointless and foolish.
Although they could not reconcile so easily, the enemy commanders had learned much from each other. Xu Huang now knew that the woman they called the "Phantom" was a formidable opponent in her own right, and demanded respect and recognition on the same level as he – as a true warrior. He was more than happy to accept that. Within her silver eyes he had witnessed the pinnacle of a Claymore's true strength. It was, in fact, troubling that the potency he found within Miria to be a more worthwhile and meaningful power than that of the Black Ones.
He had reverted from his state of Zhen Xing into his more human form. The poor girls were so light that he could carry them together into the sick bay. They panted uncontrollably as he rested their bodies down on two lowered beds. Alicia's skin was burnt from the uncontrolled release of Yoki that she had suffered. They both needed bandages, but it was Beth who suffered the most. In the name of maintaining the soul Link, she suffered the most regardless of victory or defeat.
At last I understand your mysterious instructions, my Lord Cao Cao.
"Foolish girls," he muttered, removing his helm and shaking his head. "If only you had let go of your rigid, dogmatic obedience… you wouldn't have ended up like this." He moved to clasp Beth's hand, the reflection of her agonized face settling into his enervated, weary mind. "What in the world has pushed you this far to hide from us?"
Lying on her divan, she did not respond verbally, although her grip on his fingers tightened. He felt his heart sink in despondent concern. "Beth…"
At least she recognizes the voices of her allies. Encouraged, he pulled a thin blanket over the twins, tucking them snugly amongst each other, before rising and moving in the direction of the tent's exit. He had not stepped out when the warden healer in the shadows called out to him.
"Lord High General, what would you have me do with these silver-eyed witches once they have recovered?"
"Send them to my quarters. But ensure that they've eaten a hearty meal first." Xu Huang looked back at the sleeping Alicia and Beth. "I'd like some time with them alone."
The warden nodded. "But of course, my Lord."
Several hours had already passed, and Xu Huang's patience was running thin. "What's taking them?" muttered the Wei general, tapping his booted foot impatiently as he sat on the side of his divan. He had discarded his armoured top, and his broad, chiselled chest was exposed to the cool night air. He ran his fingers through his long black hair in fatigue.
Did I underestimate the damage of their severed Soul Link?
But he had pre-empted himself. As if to answer the nagging question at the back of his head, the flaps of his tents suddenly eased aside, and the Black Ones silently stepped in. They had bathed and discarded their black suits, and looked extremely awkward in their light grey, loose-fitting nightdresses. The wound that Jean had inflicted on Beth's shoulder was but a conspicuous scar. Despite his relief, Xu Huang kept an impassive, stern face. "Are you feeling better?" he inquired, lowering his voice to a gentler tone. The twins nodded in the affirmative together, although Beth's expression remained very weary. "Did you eat?" he asked.
Beth's lips hesitantly parted after a moment of silence. "No."
"I explicitly ordered the warden to give you a hot meal," chastised Xu Huang irritably. "It seems that I have no choice but to have him executed – "
"We refused," interrupted Alicia unexpectedly. "He offered. We did not eat."
"I see," he said severely. "In any case, your stubbornness today was unforgivable. There is no use in a warrior who does not treasure her life. Especially you, Beth. Life is a gift that allows one to tread the path of true might. From hereon, I demand that you request my help when you require it. Do not protest. This is an order for both of you…" he relaxed slightly. "For you to protect yourselves as if your existences mean something."
The women nodded hesitantly. He sighed as they lapsed into silence. "I know that you can't comprehend the humanity of mere words. I understand that. But I'm asking you to try. If you can maintain a psychic connection with each other… surely somehow… you can experience an emotional connection with other humans?" he pondered.
They shuffled closer, as if they did not know the answer but wished not to frustrate him.
"For what reason do you two fight?" he finally asked, not taking his eyes off them. He rose and walked over. Inches away from their bodies, he stared down and they met his gaze, four ponds of silver kissing two large and noble chestnut eyes. "Beth. Do you have an answer for me? Why have you come to China, to fight Awakened Beings?"
Beth responded. "My purpose is to destroy Awakened Beings. I exist to serve the assignment I have been given to silence any creature that has released more than eighty-percent of its Yoki."
"The warrior always distinguishes his purpose for fighting and his purpose for serving," disagreed Xu Huang, taking a slender hand from each of the twins in his own. "Lord Cao Cao believes that people will always be unequal to some extent. And while I am infinitely weaker than our King, I disagree with his philosophy. You are my subordinate, but I believe that in spirit, you and I will always be comrades. That is why you are worth every fibre of my power and every risk that I might take for you. We cannot fight side-by-side if you don't share that belief."
Beth paused. After several long minutes of thinking, she finally spoke again. "In that case, I fight for our King, and the Lord High General. I exist to fight… she lowered her head. "… For you."
Xu Huang closed his eyes. "Don't say that just to please me."
But Alicia nodded in agreement. "For Master Xu Huang, we fight."
"Wait, Alicia. I just said – "
The sisters' voices grew stronger. "Yes. For Master, we fight. That is our reason and answer." He blinked, and stared down. They had drawn close and nestled against his lean body, Alicia to his left, and Beth to his right. They closed their eyes, laying their cheeks on his torso, and for a moment, Xu Huang swore that he could detect the faint scent of gentle peace drifting from them.
He inhaled in amazement at their touch. "You…"
They did not move. It was as if they wanted only to sleep. His strong arms instinctively moved to hold them, and they snuggled tighter, each sharing a portion of his smooth, muscular body.
"Master," mumbled the twins quietly.
"Honestly, I give up," he finally sighed, smiling in slight amusement as he felt his fingers on their frail shoulderblades. "I can't be watching over you two like this." He hadn't allowed himself such a grin in a long time. Beth had already fallen silent and dozed off while Alicia continued to cuddle Xu Huang. Not releasing them, he backed away and slumped onto his divan, closing his eyes as he drifted into exhausted slumber.
Two demon-women rested in a human man's embrace that night, and for the first time since their battle together, he glimpsed the truth of their fragile humanity, buried underneath the monstrosity that was the Soul Link.
Alliance Main Camp
Miria held her severed arm to her shoulder in her tent, patiently waiting for it to reattach. Since her arrival, had understood that the defunct Organization's Number One and Two were allied with Wei, rendering the position of Shu all the more perilous, especially if one factored in the omnipresent threat of an Awakened Lu Bu. But there were more immediate concerns for now. "Why did you come?" she asked, staring at the warriors that huddled around Cynthia. "You knew the Rising Dragon General is on the verge of death, Zhou Tai. Yet you still travelled all the way to Shi Ting. Would it not have been more prudent to stop at – "
"Orders are orders. I had no choice but to fight Xu Huang," he muttered, placing a wet towel on Cynthia's feverish forehead. She lay on his bed, half-naked and trembling from the infectious nature of Luciela's catastrophic wound. "But I could not bring myself to bring her to battle. She is severely weakened. I do not know if our Yoki will be enough to heal her." He stared down at his beloved. For the moment, she could rest, but tomorrow, he would request special permission for them to return to Jianye, lest she…
"I will care for her," he muttered, clasping her clammy hand. "I will not leave the general's side. I am staying with her." He drew down and boldly kissed her sweaty forehead. "I would sooner see the world burn than to hear her weeping."
"That's a foolish but understandable sentiment," replied Jean. "Commander Lu Xun will tie down the Wei forces here, so there should not be a problem with a lack of numbers." She raised her head, looking at Clare. "There's still one major theatre of war that we haven't addressed…"
Clare nodded. "By now, Lady Huang, Lord Zhao and Flora should have reached Wu Zhang Plains – "
"The Central Plains?" interrupted Tabitha. "Is that not the very heartland of China?"
"That's right, Tabitha," said Miria, grimacing in satisfaction as her arm finally began to slowly fuse back its severed skin, flesh, bone, arteries and nerves. "Its crucial position as the gateway to the north means that we must break through it at all costs. But Wei will defend it to the last man. I'm sure of it. It will take a herculean effort on part of both factions to gain any significant advantage there."
"In other words," agreed Zhou Tai grimly, "it shall become the bloodiest battlefield in the Middle Kingdom."
She could hear his voice, audible through the ineffable darkness.
Cynthia's eyes fluttered open upon hearing her lover's call. He murmured her name, repeating it twice, before she managed to register his summons. She stared up into his silver eyes groggily. He had removed his armour, and wore only a humble shirt and a soldier's leggings. He dipped down and lifted her slowly and gingerly to a sitting position. "Cynthia," he whispered into her ear. "It is time for your meal."
"I… I'm not hungry."
"Force it down," he said reluctantly. "You must eat, even if you feel ill." He hated doing this to her, but emotions had no place in saving lives… not even hers. He scooped up a spoonful of warm, unflavoured rice porridge. "Come," he pleaded. "Eat."
She nibbled feebly at the fare, her tongue rolling the glob into her mouth, but it was difficult to even swallow. And worse… her stomach… her Yoki had only just managed to hold back the infection, and until it wore away, her ripped flesh could not close up. Her innards burned as it attempted its utmost to process the new food within her. It stung; it hurt greatly. Zhou Tai was about to offer another spoonful when she shook her head slowly. His heart melted, and he set his meal aside.
"Where… where are we?" she mumbled, too weak to even find his hand.
He clasped it for her. "Where you have rested for the past three days. We are at camp, in Miria's tent."
"Oh…" Cynthia blinked slowly, wishing she could do something to ease the sorrowful face of her lover. He was usually an expressionless man, even in battle. But alone with her, he allowed the tears to flow and his shoulders to heave. He kissed her lips gently, and she tried to move and return a portion of his kindness. Oh, if only she could throw herself around him! But this was a wound inflicted by an Abyssal, and even the proficient medicine of Chinese physicians proved unable to defeat the festering rot. Only through time and patience could she prevent her wound from threatening her life.
"Now… I have two ugly wounds on my tummy," she mumbled, her weak attempt at humour stopped by his finger on her lip.
"I promise you. You will live through this. Your powers are strong enough to complete the healing. I will pour in my strength, too. We will not give in. And then you will be my wife," he swore, staring at her with the intensity of a burning fire.
She began to sniffle at his words. She reached at him feebly, hoping he would hold her, but he shook his head. Somehow, she could not find the strength to eat, but she had plenty left to embrace him.
But he did not want to hurt her. If she strained even slightly…
She stared at him as he shook his head. "I might disrupt the healing– "
"I beg you," she sobbed. "Please, baby."
He drew closer and clasped her. She winced in pain, but pressed herself close as her clammy hands found the back of his shoulders. They stroked his flowing raven hair, and he cradled her head lightly, closing his eyes. "Do not worry. I will do whatever you ask of me. I cannot disobey you for long. You know that."
He blinked. "Your hairtails… they have been undone."
"I'm sorry," she whispered. "You… like them, don't you? But I… I don't feel comfortable with them in a condition like this." They kissed. "I promise, for your sake, that nothing this will ever happen to me again. Next time, I'll be strong enough to protect you, just like I did at He Fei."
For some odd reason, she already felt somewhat better.
"I'll be your guardian, and you'll be mine."
History has a strange way of forgetting the true heroes, the true champions and saviours that are not chronicled in the historical archives, or praised by future generations of scholars and learned men. Their only chance for remembrance is to survive within the hearts of those who knew and loved them, for their faces to be etched, marked, deeply and profoundly into the experiences and memories of those who do become remembered by posterity.
Very few people can reach the heights of fame as those titans that towered over China in the epoch of the Three Kingdoms. Cao Cao. Liu Bei. Zhuge Liang. Lu Xun. They are but a select few amongst a slightly larger minority. How great were the sacrifices made to remember these personages, whilst so many others were forgotten in the mists of time?
History is cruel. War is cruel. But, it must always be remembered that during this dark time, one bright light shone, an illumination given by silver eyes. That light shone from a strange race of female warriors, some of which allied themselves with Shu, several with Wu, and several with Wei. In particular, there was one who served under the Grand General of Shu with unwavering devotion. She was one who fell deeply in love with a young warrior of the Han.
Most famously, she was a particular warrior who utilized a special technique of drawing the Claymore at lightning speed, cutting apart the very wind…
Following the abrupt end to the Southern Expedition, she would make her way to Tianshui in support of her allies. She would fight her next battle on the Wu Zhang Plains, forging her destiny in this world amidst brave allies and formidable enemies.
The name of this beautiful, wavy-haired soldier had not yet been recorded by history. Her deeds had not been sung in Chinese households, nor were her adventures retold to curious children. But her foray into the Central Plains against the mighty Wei Kingdom would change all that.
As she stood against the million-strong legions of Cao Cao, it never crossed her mind that her exploits would eventually go down in legend.
It is by her side… that our journey continues.