"Let men decide firmly what they will not do, and they will be free to do vigorously what they ought to do."
- Mencius

Chapter 22: The King and the Owl

Xiaopei Fortress
Duchy of Jiangsu, Area 22 (China), Holy Britannian Empire
July 6, 2025

Zhou glowered as she continued running down the corridor, all the while firing back at the pursuing Britannian soldiers with her QSZ-92 pistol. The Britannians naturally responded in kind, but by the time they managed to aim and let off their assault rifles, Zhou and her fellow compatriots had ducked around a corner, allowing the Britannian 5.56mm rounds to fly through empty space. The Britannian soldiers remained persistent however, and so maintained their pursuit. On the opposite end, the Chinese only had two escorting troops (the rest had been killed off), dressed in tactical armor and wielding their own assault rifles, to provide covering fire.

Unfortunately, one bullet hit one of the operators, causing to fall over and clutch his wounded shoulder. Without pausing, Zhou knelt down and pulled his arm over her. The man's eyes quickly widened in horror. "Leave me General!" he desperately shouted over the pain. "I will only slow you down!"

"Like hell!" Zhou shouted in return as she got back up and pulled the man along with her, all the while firing a few more shots from her pistol to keep the Britannians back further. It was a feeble effort on her part, as her sidearm had little chance in actually killing any of the imperialists, but it did at least keep the Britannians at bay temporarily. Fortunately her two escorts had seen what she was doing and doubled back to support, one even throwing a grenade down the corridor to cause the Britannians to scatter. The end of the corridor soon exploded in a mixture of smoke and shrapnel, but Zhou knew that would only delay the Britannians for but a few moments.

Several more meters later, Zhou's group turned another corner, where they immediately faced a circular entryway at the end. Again without pausing, Zhou's group ran down the corridor while the two soldiers respectively pulled out a pair of Type 66 mines, CLA copies of the Britannian Claymore, from their packs. As they worked, Zhou pulled out a comm. device from her pocket. "Zhou to Da Long Dan, status report!" she shouted hurriedly.

"All ships are up and running General!" the Da Long Dan's captain responded. "Your group is the last one!"

The renewed sound of gunfire alerted Zhou that the Britannians had caught up with them. The escorting soldiers were quick to return fire, but were cut down, the Britannian bullets managing to pierce through gaps in their armor. Peering back for the briefest of moments, Zhou knew right away that they were dead from the way they laid on the ground, but that hardly mattered. Even if they were still alive, there was nothing she could do for them.

"Come on General!" one of her subordinates waved at her from the now open entryway as two others, having drawn their own sidearms, provided her covering fire. It was all Zhou could do to tighten her hold on the man she was carrying along while continuing to move.

Fortunately the now deceased soldiers' sacrifice were not in vain. Driven by both a feeling of superiority and their objective in slaying a CLA general, the Britannian troops pushed forward, not realizing the Chinese trap until it was too late. Not paying as much attention as he should have, the point man tripped the wire, causing the Type 66s to explode in unison, shredding the Britannian troops apart in an instant. However, as Zhou knew, the troops were but one Britannian squad, and there were several more coming their way.

All but leaping through the entryway, Zhou was on the comlink before her subordinates sealed the door. "Zhou to bridge, we're all onboard! Detonate!"

No more than a second later, Zhou and those around her were rocked as a series of explosion ran throughout the space that they had just exited; fail safes meant for this very scenario. The corridors connecting Xiaopei to the Long Dans were now permanently sealed, and the Britannians could not hope to uncover them. Zhou, in contrast to most others of her rank, had purposely delayed their detonation until everyone still alive was safely aboard.

"Take him to sickbay!" Zhou ordered as she handed the wounded man she had been carrying to another one of her junior officers. Seeing that the man was taken care of, Zhou marched down to the nearest elevator and tapped the button for the bridge.

Now safe, at least for the time being, within the armored confines of the CLA's massive flagship, Zhou allowed herself a moment to breath and calm down. It was only then that she felt something run down her cheek, to which she brought her gloved right hand over. Pulling back, she realized it was blood, and when she followed the trail, she found that she had a small gash on the side of her forehead. Seeing as how she hadn't felt it, and the blood trail wasn't that big, it was likely just a scratch.

Besides, I can't allow myself to be bogged down by a head wound. she thought bitterly. Indeed, there was too much at stake for the Vice Commander of the CLA to be taken out of action, especially in the here and now. She might not have been as important to the cause as Li, but that didn't mean there weren't lives depending on her.

Soon enough, the double doors of the elevator opened up and revealed the Da Long Dan's bridge to her. As the Da Long Dan was meant to be the Chinese Federation's land-based flagship, the bridge was naturally more ornate and well decorated than those of most other Chinese vessels, almost to a nauseating extent. Zhou ignored that factor as she entered.

Immediately the bridge crew took notice of her emergence, while the landship's captain, Colonel Tao Xishan, looked up at Zhou with utmost concern. "You're wounded, General Zhou."

"Just a scratch." Zhou replied straight off, wiping away the excess blood from her forehead and bobcut brown hair, as well as readjusting her equally red commissar cap alongside. She quickly took her seat at the rear of the bridge, on one of the two obnoxiously throne-like chairs meant for VIPs. "Status."

Knowing the general's tone was not to be questioned, Tao quickly focused on the situation at hand. After a brief moment, a tactical map of the current battle appeared on the main monitor, in which five red squares lined out around Xiaopei, each one symbolizing the Da Long Dan and the four lesser Long Dans, were highlighted. "All ships are up and running. We can launch at any time, though the moment we do we will be vulnerable." he said, then motioning toward the mish-mashed field of red and blue dots. "General Hong's forces are still holding out, but I do not think they will last much longer. As well, General Li remains engaged with the Rounds."

Zhou took minor solace in both reports. If only because the Xiaopei forces were still fighting and Li was still alive. "Very well. Have all ships launch immediately."

Tao looked hesitant on that. "With respect ma'am, if we launch now, we will be completely exposed to their airships."

"That's a risk we'll have to take." Zhou responded, before fixing Tao with a threatening glare. "Unless you would like to see our comrades wiped out to every last man, Colonel."

Tao already knew he was treading on thin ground, as he was effectively contesting the orders of a general. However, as the captain of the Da Long Dan, he was also responsible for the well-being of his ship and crew, and he did not want either to get destroyed right off the bat. "I do not, General, but at the same time launching now will only guarantee our instantaneous destruction. We can only wait for the right opportunity..."

"Which will not come, no matter how much we wait." Zhou snapped, more out of worry over Li and the others rather than her orders being contested. Indeed, as much as Zhou would have preferred it, patience meant nothing in this scenario, where no reinforcements were due to arrive and the Britannians were unlikely to make a mistake. "Carry out my orders, Colonel, before I find someone else to do so."

Before Tao could open his mouth, whether to continue protesting or to actually carry out that order, one of the operators suddenly spoke up. "Receiving incoming coded message, source unknown!" the operator spoke.

After a following moment of silence, in which the operator seemed transfixed upon the message, Zhou folded her arms impatiently. "Well?"

At that, the operator looked up again, a mixture of shock and sudden relief on his face. "General ma'am, you need to see this..."

"Checkmate." Johann exclaimed coldly as he pulled the trigger, launching a single crimson beam at the exposed Shen Hu. It was all Li could do to shut his eyes and turn away; there was no evading this blast, as the Dinadan was too close. And so, in that brief moment in which time slowed and calm momentarily dawned, he awaited the inevitable.

As such, it completely surprised Li when a black mass, appearing out of nowhere, placed itself in between the beam and the Shen Hu, and deflected the former with a crimson energy shield generated around its left arm. It then followed this up by bringing about its rifle, firing an equally crimson shot of its own, forcing the three Rounds to go into evasion. With almost synchronized movements, the three Britannian knightmares flitted about while the black knightmare, its cloak billowing in the wind, remained stationary.

"What the-!?" Nena called out as she maneuvered her knightmare, vocalizing the exclamation of Michael and potentially Johann as well. When the beams dissipated, she brought the Safir back, falling in line with her two brethren as she looked on toward the newcomer, its ruby eyes staring back as darkness personified. "That's...!"

"Artorius." Johann finished for her, his voice eternally calm but his eyes looking on with something else. Specifically, they held a strange mixture of intrigue and dismay as he looked over the knightmare's obsidian armor and pigeon blood eyes, visualizing the devicer within the cockpit pod. "Zero."

Li could only blink as the Artorius switched out its VARIS for its twin MVS, and then deployed its factspheres, yet made no motion to attack the Rounds. Nor, for that matter, did the Rounds move to attack it, ensuring a brief moment of calm for their area of the battle. Thus, with only a brief amount of time to do so, Li hastily established a comlink to the Black Knight unit.

"What are you doing here!?" Li shouted toward the black knightmare, not knowing what he was feeling toward its pilot's intervention. Too much had happened for him to feel a specific emotion in that event. "You said you would protect Her Excellency!"

"Rest assured Her Excellency is very much protected." Lelouch replied from the opposite end, his voice retaining a smooth metallic tone as always. "In fact, it was by her will that I have acted here, in your defense."

"Her will...?" Li exclaimed, beginning to realize what had really just happened.

Behind his mask, Lelouch smirked at the wounded tiger. "Did you really think Her Excellency would not realize your intentions so easily? That you wished to sacrifice yourself in her name like the good little soldier you are?" his smirk grew larger as he saw Li look away, having been firmly caught. "And much more, did you really think she would allow it?"

Li sneered as he looked back toward the phantom. "And you?" he snarled back. "Don't tell me you're just following her will in the interest of our alliance!"

"Not at all." Lelouch replied, recalling the event beforehand. "I decided for myself to return here..."

Black Knights mobile battleship Mikasa
Duchy of Jiangsu, Area 22 (China), Holy Britannian Empire
July 6, 2025

"I have made my decision!" Lelouch called out to all within the Mikasa's bridge, his voice holding complete conviction. "We will return and support Li's forces!"

With that announcement, a strange mixture shock and certain admiration dawned across the bridge. The leader of the Black Knights had spoken, and their course was now set before them. There was but one thing to do now, and that was execute their leader's will.

Even so, Tohdoh looked on confusingly. "But why Zero?" he exclaimed, not understanding why his commander had chosen such a decision. "You know that if we return to Xiaopei, we will be revealing our presence to the Britannians!"

"In all likelihood, that would have happened before Akai Yoake anyway." Lelouch replied as he took his seat at the head of the bridge. "While we have been fortunate so far, it would only be a matter of time before the Knight of Two realizes that we are in China, assuming he hasn't already. Thus if we are to become known, then it might as well be in a time and place of our choosing!"

And yet the general refused to back down. "With respect Zero, this is not a well thought move!" he protested. "The entire point of this retreat was to trade blood for time. The Chinese forces at Xiaopei have laid down their lives to ensure that we reach Penglai with their leadership. To return now would not only negate that sacrifice, but put the lives they had fought to preserve in battle against a full armada!" Tohdoh tried to push back the weight in his stomach as he went on. "One that we have no strategic reason to fight!"

"On the contrary General Tohdoh, we have all the reason in the world to fight," Lelouch countered. "For coming to our allies' need is not only strategically relevant, but always the right and just thing to do!"

Tohdoh still held his ground. "But what of General Li's will?" he went on, still not believing he was question his leader in such a manner. "To return and support him would be to undermine his...!"

"Tohdoh." Lelouch replied, silencing the general with that single word. "As a warrior, I know you out of everyone understand and respect General Li's intention of sacrifice. That being said, while you may agree with them, I, like Her Excellency, do not believe this is the good General's place to die, and that his demise would indeed be detrimental to the CLA."

Lelouch could feel Tianzi's responding warm smile on that, as well as Kallen's gaze of admiration. He continued. "To sacrifice one's self for a worthy cause, whether it be a nation, a person or an idea, is a beautiful and noble image. However, one should not do so readily; it is only upon the last breath that sacrifice must be invoked, otherwise it is nothing more than a waste of life and tactical capability."

Tohdoh grit his teeth at that. "Again with respect Zero, it is a soldier's duty to lay down his life for one's country...!"

"Wrong General." Lelouch corrected, silencing his subordinate once more. "Laying down one's life for one's country is but an obligation. Rather, a soldier's true duty..." he couldn't help but smile a little at his next line. "...is to live for one's country and one's people, so that they may call upon him in their time of need!"

Upon that declaration, Tohdoh felt himself subconsciously step back, a clear expression of shock upon his face. The rest of the bridge held similar expressions, but none were as deep as Tohdoh's, and there was good reason for this. Seemingly long ago, Colonel Saburo Tohdoh had spoken those very words during the Second Sino-Japanese War, when he famously decried the usage of kamikaze tactics before the JSDF's leadership; a statement that, in spite of its briefness, would effectively end the traditional practice of suicide attacks within the modern era. Needless to say, the effect it held upon Saburo Tohdoh's son was quite evident.

Then the moment of silence passed, and Tohdoh, again much to the surprise of everyone, tilted his head and flashed a small, unabashed smile. He had been defeated in this battle. "Your words and wisdom never cease to amaze me, Zero." the General stated, bowing out toward his superior gracefully. "I have nothing more to say."

Lelouch nodded, his smirk turning into an appreciative smile of his own; one that he knew Tohdoh would detect in spite of his mask. He then turned before the rest of the bridge. "Black Knights, prepare for battle!" he declared, causing the bridge to once again shift into action, klaxons sounding off in the background. "Set return course to Xiaopei, best possible speed!"

"Do you have a plan Zero?" Ohgi inquired as the orders were quickly carried out. "Considering that the CLA forces won't last much longer...!"

"We won't have much time for preparations, yes I know Ohgi." Lelouch answered, frowning at the thought. Indeed, going by the images on the main monitor, General Li's forces were now in full retreat, and General Li himself was barely holding the line against the three Rounds; about the only thing that hadn't happened yet was the Long Dans emerging from underground and going into retreat as well. Conversely, the Britannian forces were on the complete offensive, with very little obstacles keeping them back; with Xiaopei's defensive network abolished, all they had to worry about now were the individual Chinese units.

Thus, if Lelouch and company were to help the CLA, then their only option was to move straight in and attack from the start; a stratagem that Lelouch would never have willingly used against an opponent like Johann. Not only would they facing a superior numbered opponent without any kind of tactical advantage (outside the basic superiorities in technology and training), but because time was a major factor, Lelouch could not set up one of his "miracles", as that required advanced preparations. Even worse, the terrain around Xiaopei offered little cover and no geographical advantage, which meant Lelouch couldn't employ it in his strategy. Overall, this was the type of battle Lelouch would have otherwise avoided.

Even so, he did have a plan. It wouldn't be as flashy nor as spectacular as his usual plans, but it was still effective. After all, he had used it once before back in Japan, albeit on a much smaller scale. "We will proceed with Shikine One." he announced, then looking over toward Ayame. "Weapons officer, you may begin the necessary arrangements."

"As you command Zero." Ayame replied, immediately setting to work.

Tianzi stepped forward again. "And what about me Zero?"

Almost forgetting about her in the moment, Lelouch turned back to her. "I'm afraid you must continue on to Penglai Island without us, Your Excellency." he stated evenly. "With all due respect..."

"Having me remain on the Mikasa is both a burden and an unnecessary risk." Tianzi summarized, much to the renewed surprise of everyone present. Tianzi couldn't help but chuckle lightly at that, in spite of all that was happening. "Do not worry, I understand. So long as you hold to your word, I will go onto Penglai without further argument."

For his part, Lelouch couldn't help but arch an eyebrow at Tianzi's reply. He had expected her to attempt remaining, given all that she had said up to this point. That said, he chose not to press on it. "You have my gratitude, Your Excellency." Lelouch replied. "I have a Gefjun-equipped transport standing by on the hangar deck. You may use that for your transport."

"Very well." Tianzi replied in turn. However, before she went on her way, she looked back toward Tohdoh. "General." she spoke with a nod.

Tohdoh understood the message: in spite of their earlier disagreements, there was no bad blood between them. As such, Tohdoh answered with a nod of his own. "Your Excellency." he replied.

With that taken care of, Tianzi turned and entered the nearest elevator, the doors closing after she stepped in. From there, everyone on the bridge, Lelouch included, prepared for the coming incursion.

Lelouch turned his focus back upon the three Knights of the Round, who were arrayed before him and apparently unsure how to proceed. Further in the distance, he saw the Tianshou units remained present with their captors as well, alongside several other accompanying units, also unsure of what to make with his entrance. And on the ground even further out, General Hong's forces continued to resist the Britannian advance, even though their forces were dwindling by the second.

Right, all tasks at hand are clear. Lelouch thought as he keyed in a comlink with the Dinadan. "Well, this is an unexpected honor," Lelouch began, using his standard domineering tone as he addressed the Knight of Two. "In my quest to avenge the Devastation, I knew I would one day encounter you upon the battlefield, Sir Ernst..."

He then allowed himself to smirk. Despite his dispositions, he knew that the next few minutes were going to be interesting. "However, I never thought it would be here, in a forgotten land such as this."

A second later, a vidscreen window display of the Knight of Two's profile appeared on Lelouch's main monitor. "The honor is mine, Zero," Johann acknowledged, sounding far more forward than Lelouch had expected. "I had hoped we would meet again."

Lelouch suddenly felt his smirk die away. "Oh? Have we met before, Sir Ernst?" he asked, putting on an amused tone, but deep down feeling uncertainty.

Johann's eyes flashed with bemusement of their own. "Come now. There is no need to feign ignorance, or attempt deception," he replied, sounding as though he actually sensed the change in Lelouch's demeanor. "We both know of what I speak, 'Lord Ashford'."

Eyes widening from behind his mask, Lelouch was just barely able to contain his reflexive gasp. It was one of the few times he had been so taken off guard. "How did you know?" he asked, not even attempting to hide his shock.

"It was quite easy actually," Johann began to explain in an almost casual manner. "For one who holds disdain for mankind's elites, you play the role well Zero; well enough that you were virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the attendants. To the untrained eye, you were nothing more than another young nobleman amidst equal company."

"But...?" Lelouch prodded.

"But unfortunately for you, my eye is not untrained." Johann replied with a small hint of pride. "Through that mask of pleasantness you wore, I saw but the barest hint of your anger and hatred towards the surrounding gentry; feelings that no Britannian nobleman would have held for his own kind."

Johann's eyes gleamed knowingly. "From there it was a simple process of deduction. Who would have the resources and skill to infiltrate the heart of Luoyang? Certainly no one from the CLA or any of the other regional splinter groups, as they all lack the technology to craft such elaborate disguises and the contacts to gain an invitation, and much more lack any knowledge of Britannian etiquette, which is all too necessary to blend in. And with the EU more focused on defending Russia than taking Area 22 for itself, that only left one particular faction that has both advanced technology and intricate knowledge of Britannia tradition. A faction that had everything to gain from China's reemergence as a sovereign nation."

Lelouch managed to regain some his resolve at that point. "And me?" he spoke out. "How did you know I wasn't some random agent?"

Johann considered that line of thought. "Admittedly, that was more of a guess than an estimate, but it seemed logical." he explained. "In Area 11, you continually put yourself in the frontlines and took personal interest in many of the Black Knights' missions. That, along with your taste for showmanship and your clearly being a highly cultured and educated man, made it all the more likely that you took to the identity of a Britannian nobleman and infiltrated Luoyang yourself."

A certain level of smugness then entered the Knight of Two's eyes. "It then only took our conversation to verify my hypothesis, from which I established that Daniel Ashford, even if he wasn't actually Zero, was a man quite used to masking his true persona while acting another out convincingly."

Though his mask continued to conceal his face, Lelouch could almost feel Johann's eyes pierce through it and pick up upon his astonishment. "As I told you that night Zero, you were more than what you appeared to be," he stated. "In fact, now that I finally see you as the phantasm that you portray yourself..."

At that, the barest hint of a smirk soon appeared on Johann's lips. "...I still believe that to be true."

Another moment of silence rolled forward as Lelouch comprehended the Knight of Two's words, too shocked to speak his own right out. Then, without any kind of signal or warning, Lelouch let out a burst of laughter, a bout that unnerved all who were listening in whether they be friend or foe. It was the kind of laughter that was as maddening as it was spontaneous.

"My compliments, Sir Ernst," Lelouch spoke as his laughter died down. "Very few people have ever caught me off guard in such a manner. I should not expect any less from the Owl of Britannia."

"No Zero, you should not," Johann replied almost smugly.

Lelouch then readopted a more stable prose. "I assume you are aware what you saw that night was not my true face?"

Johann sniffed, as if insulted. "Of course. Just as I know that 'Daniel Ashford' never existed before that evening," he answered. "But those are both minor details."

He then had the Dinadan bring its hadron rifle back to bear. "Normally I would give you the opportunity to concede peacefully at this point, Zero, but as you have revealed yourself so verily, surrender is obviously beyond your intentions."

That caused Lelouch to smirk a little himself. Offering the other side to surrender and concede up front was one of Johann's personality quirks. Very rarely did the Knight of Two not present it to his opponent, and only when he was completely assured that the other side would not even consider it. Here and now, Lelouch took it as a sign of acknowledgment.

"Indeed it is, Sir Ernst," Lelouch said, before pointing one of his MVS at the Dinadan, causing the Caius and the Safir to draw closer to it. He still felt dread at the prospect of facing Johann again, especially in this manner, but he managed to force that emotion back as he continued. "I did not return from the grave, storm Pearl Harbor and restart my war against Britannia to surrender so easily. Especially..."

He grinned at his next set of words. "When I have not yet begun to fight."

Even Johann, ever the stoic, couldn't help but let out a 'heh' as recognized those words, spoken by one of the most legendary men to ever stand against Britannia. It was a fitting quote for the Demon King, especially from Johann's across-the-line point of view. He could already tell that, in spite of all that was happening and what was at stake, he was going to enjoy this match. Win, lose or draw.

"Very well. Then let us not waste any more time," he stated, just as the Caius and Safir rearmed their own weapons. He himself mentally prepared for the inevitable opening attack, which he already had a good idea of. "White pawn to e4."

Again Lelouch couldn't help but smirk somewhat. As with himself and Schneizel, the Knight of Two liked to use chess as a backdrop for his battles, against likeminded adversaries anyway. Alongside this, he had a habit of acknowledging worthy opponents by granting them the opportunity to employ the Sicilian Defence, or in actual battles like this one, the first move. Some things never change.

With that, Lelouch reached his right hand up, fingers crossed together, before taking a short breath. The die would now be cast. "Black pawn to c5." he stated before snapping his fingers.

An instant later, a single rocket lanced out from the distance and slammed into one of the Sutherlands holding the Shen Que in place, obliterating the knightmare in a single strike. Before the other Britannian knightmares could react, several more rockets shot across like meteors, easily decimating the other Sutherlands as well as breaking apart their slash harkens, freeing the Tianshou. From there, a team of Akatsukis accelerated onto the scene, energy fillers in their hands, while their bazooka equipped comrades remained behind to continue providing them cover from the other surrounding Sutherlands and Gloucesters.

Watching this occurrence play out alarmingly, Michael quickly put the Caius back into action, brandishing his broadswords and moving to charge through the fire to the Tianshou knightmares, with Nena attempting to move close behind. However, before they could reach, the Shen Hu both unleashed its baryon cannon, causing the two knightmares to break away from their charges, providing enough time for the Akatsukis to reach the three Chinese knightmares with their cargo in tow.

Eyes narrowing as he watched the three knightmares connect, Johann instead focused on his immediate enemies, to which he fired a spray of hadron shots at the Shen Hu, forcing Li to take cover behind his impromptu harken shields once more and thereby allowing to the Knight of Two to advance forward and take a hadron rifle shot at the Artorius. Unfortunately the shot wasn't fast enough, as Lelouch evaded the blast, and then charged forward to slash at the Dinadan. Before he could connect with the frame however, Johann brought his daggers back up and parried each of the Artorius' crimson blades, beginning their own duel.

As this came about, the Mikasa glided toward the battlefield from the horizon, a legion of knightmares and gunships speeding around it. From there, the mighty flagship of the Black Knights unleashed its hyper-velocity cannons, destroying a line of Britannian landships in the distance, all the while the knightmares and gunships charged in.

It's even worse than I expected. Kallen gravely thought as she gazed over the scene before her, right after her Guren Nishiki launched into its best sped. Indeed, the current situation looked nearly hopeless; between the dwindling numbers of Gun Rus and the near infinite numbers of Sutherlands and Gloucesters, alongside the three Round units in the distance, it seemed like Britannia's victory was completely assured even with the Black Knights' entry into the battle. It didn't help that, unless Kallen's sensors were lying to her, the CLA had already lost over half their forces at this point, while the various picture images of the field itself showed that the survivors were weathered and in poor shape to continue fighting. All the while their Britannian aggressors, who had only halted their assault due to the Mikasa's sudden appearance, looked all but untouched.

Overall, it felt like Narita all over again, minus the majestic surroundings. Kallen could only hope that this battle would turn out for the better, though deep down she had a feeling that the Chinese were already too far gone.

"Tengu and Kitsune Squadrons, form up on my line," Tohdoh commanded over the radio. The Zangetsu had been the first knightmare to launch, and so was somewhat ahead of the formation. "Zero Squadron, punch a hole through their lines."

"Confirmed Shogun One." Kallen replied, before switching over to her unit's frequency. At the very least she didn't have to worry about her unit's willingness to fight; if anything, hopeless battles were Zero Squadron's forte. "You heard it Zero Squadron, we're the first ones in. Let's break open a path!"

"Roger!" came the unanimous reply from the eleven other Guren Isshikis, who were now in formation around her own. Upon their acknowledgment, the Gurens each broke formation and formed into their respective teams, immediately firing off their radiant wave surgers upon entering range. An instant later, numerous Britannian knightmares were obliterated, yet many more remained active and returned the Gurens' fire with their bazookas and assault rifles. Sneering in response, Kallen engaged her radiant wave shield to deflect the initial shots, and then put her machine into full evasion, with Alfred following her movement pattern in full sync. The other Gurens performed similarly as they all moved into the Britannian formation.

With the grinding of its landspinners, the Guren Nisshiki charged through the field, brandishing its fork knife as it went. Upon approach, it identified its first victim, a Sutherland, which it immediately moved around. The Sutherland raised its rifle to retaliate, but it was too late, as the Guren slashed its cockpit block with its knife, kicked away the corpse into another pair of Sutherlands, and launched a grenade into it, obliterating all three knightmares at once. Another Sutherland then attempted to shoot her in the back with its own rifle, but Kallen easily moved away from the line of fire while Alfred came in and fired a burst of radiant wave shots into the Britannian unit. From there, Kallen sped a fair distance away and fired off her own surger, sweeping it across to take out several more targets at once.

As she did this however, a Gloucester managed to evade her line fire and launch several bazooka shots at her, causing a series of explosions. Naturally, the Britannian pilot initially thought he had killed one of the Black Knights' aces, only to yelp in surprise a second later when the Guren blasted from the smoke, seized his mobile suit by its head and engaged its surger at point blank, boiling the enemy unit from the inside out. From there, Kallen tossed the bubbled knightmare aside, where it promptly exploded and then rebrandished her knife to charge into another group of Sutherlands, slashing at them one after another, while Alfred remained at the side to support her with several grenade shots.

Moments later, another Gloucester darted down into Kallen's path, maser vibration sword raised high, and brought it down with a crash. However, the blade had cut nothing but air as Kallen evaded the slash, twisted around the Gloucester and brought about her surger, putting it in its spray setting. A short burst of radiation later, the Gloucester was completely immobile. From there, a Sutherland some distance lined up for a bazooka salvo, but the Guren responded by grasping the Gloucester and hurling the impaled the stricken knightmare into its comrade's firing arc, letting it get blown apart. From there, Alfred charged up from the side to cut the Sutherland across with his own knife.

Two more Sutherlands charged in right after, zig-zagging around while firing their rifles. However, the Gurens were undeterred, as both Kallen and Alfred simultaneously raised their surgers and launched off twin crimson beams, obliterating the Sutherlands before they could get closer. However, several more Sutherlands came streaking in afterward, forcing the two red knightmares to part and enter evasive patterns. Kallen couldn't help but grit her teeth as she dodged; after all the R&R she had enjoyed on Okinawa, she had almost forgotten how persistent Britannians could be. "Rei Two, flank them!"

Upon that command, Alfred brought his Guren to the right, firing a rapid fire burst of radiant wave energy into the Britannian formation, while Kallen took her unit to the left and launched and launched another beam. The Britannian knightmares naturally fired back, but both Black Knight units danced effortlessly between their shots, continuing to bring down their enemy's numbers as they did. Seconds later, when both Zero Squadron pilots felt that they had taken enough units out at long range, Kallen launched the Guren Nishiki forward and grasped onto a Sutherland, then engaging her surger to incinerate the captured knightmare from the inside out. As she did this, she used her opposite arm to launch a grenade into another Sutherland, which had been attempting to sneak behind her for a machine gun shot. While this occurred, Alfred shot up to a nearby Gloucester and then launched his chest mounted slash harken, latching onto the Gloucester's golden lance, yanking it free and retracting it into the Guren Isshiki's left hand.

"It's been a long time since I used one of these," Alfred let out with nostalgic grin as he gazed over the weapon, while simultaneously firing a radiant wave beam into the Gloucester before it could attack again. Twirling the lance overhead with only his knightmare's left hand, Alfred put his Guren back into a charge, sending it against another Sutherland group. Most of them scattered away, but Alfred managed to run his lance through several units as he passed, relishing the sensation as he did.

Despite all that was happening, Kallen couldn't help but flash a smile toward her subordinate. She had to admit it was rather strange seeing a Guren fight like a Gloucester, but at the same time it made her truly appreciate having the last Glaston Knight in her unit. Unfortunately she didn't have time to watch her squadmate fight like he had eight years ago, as more enemy knightmares came streaking in. Twisting around, Kallen switched her surger back to spray fire and launched a burst, causing the various Sutherlands and Gloucesters to freeze in place and summarily be picked apart by other Zero Squadron units.

Following that, the sudden increase in the volume of fire signified that Zero Squadron had successfully opened up a hole for the main forces, resulting in the Akatsukis moving in on the offensive. All around her, Kallen watched as the Guren's younger black cousins launched into the fray, spraying hand gun and bazooka shots at the Britannian units with impunity. Obviously there were still more Britannian units than Black Knight ones, but that hardly mattered to any of the Akatsuki pilots. Pearl Harbor had proven that quantity did not always hold up against quality, especially when it came in the form of superior trained pilots in eighth generation knightmares.

Even so, as she continued to drive her Guren through the battlefield, obliterating Sutherlands and Gloucesters as she went, a part of Kallen could not shake a particular feeling. The feeling that, despite all that the Black Knights were doing and were about do, they had already lost.

Bringing his seidotou about, Tohdoh easily cleaved a Sutherland in half with a rocket thrusted slash. Its squadmate soon came in to avenge its death, but that didn't matter, as Tohdoh easily reversed his sword and launched the hilt mounted slash harken, knocking the Britannian's head clean off and causing it to falter. From there, he drove forward and cut down that unit as well, before twisting around and firing his machine cannons at a charging Gloucester, which crumpled and fell before it could even touch the Zangetsu with its lance.

Sensors screeching out in warning, Tohdoh twisted the Zangetsu around to see another Gloucester charging at him, this one wielding twin MVS poised to strike. Reacting quickly, he raised the seidotou, deflecting the initial strike, then the follow up and the third with coordinated parries, before reengaging his machine cannons and firing a burst. Much to his surprise however, the Gloucester leaped upward just as Tohdoh pulled the trigger, evading the bullets altogether, before landing behind with its swords crossed over each other, ready to bifurcate the Black Knight unit. At that, Tohdoh quickly twisted around and parried, which knocked the attack away, right before launching his chest slash harken and slamming the Britannian frame dead center. He then finished it off with a diagonal cut before it could recover from the shock.

With his latest opponent vanquished, Tohdoh again turned around to search for any new challengers amongst the Britannian horde. Though the great battle occurring between dark blue Sutherlands and Gloucesters units and the jet black Akatsukis, he saw that several of the Britannian knightmares were choosing to forgo the newcomers and continue attacking the Gun Rus. And as he half-expected, the Chinese knightmares were doing their best to fight back as they retreated, but their numbers had diminished so much that they were doing little more than mounting a token defense while their more capable opponents were ripping into them without hindrance. This was further emphasized by Tohdoh's radio being filled with death cries and calls for help, all in Mandarin.

Looking toward the Gun Rus, he knew what he had to do. "The Britannians are still attacking the Gun Rus!" he called out on the Black Knights' push frequency. "Shoguns Three and Five standby to follow me in, everyone else continue attacking the main forces! Mikasa, open up a path!"

Upon that command, a spray of cruise missiles launched from the Mikasa's VLS and arced in the air, lancing downward toward their targets. Once they reached the selected altitude, the casings around the missiles separated, allowing swarms of smaller missiles to be unleashed upon the Britannian aggressors, who only noticed their approach at the very last second. Thus the missiles rained down upon the numerous Sutherlands and Gloucesters that were between Tohdoh's forces and the CLA formations, destroying several while causing the rest to scatter, thereby allowing Tohdoh and his supporters to move in through the new openings.

Inside the cockpit of his own Jikisanshiyo, Senba couldn't help but frown as the massing Gun Rus came into clear view. They were indeed a hideous design, not unlike the various tanks and armor the Chinese had used back in the Second Sino-Japanese War. The veteran could almost feel the old instinct to shoot at them crawl back upon him, especially as his eyes skimmed across the red star sigils they all possessed. "I never thought I would be fighting to save the goddamn reds, Shogun One."

"Keep it together Shogun Three," Tohdoh stated firmly, even though he understood what Senba was going through. He himself wondered what his father would have thought, or much more if he was watching. "All units engage at will!" he ordered as he brandished the seidotou and put his knightmare into a full charge. The Akatsukis moved in at full speed as well, but they could never dream of matching the Zangetsu's speed.

Only too late did the Imperial units take notice of the approaching eighth generation prototype, resulting in the Zangetsu tearing through three Sutherlands before the rest scattered, from which they were forced to engage the trailing Akatsukis. Another Sutherland attempted to shoot the Zangetsu in the back with its machine gun mounted grenade launcher, but the jet black custom knightmare easily turned around and unleashed its machine cannons once more, ripping the enemy knightmare apart before it could shoot a single projectile. He then used the hilt mounted slash harken to smash the factsphere sensor of another Gloucester, right before bifurcating it.

Suddenly, another comm. line was established. "Daoji One to Shogun One, what in Hell's name are you doing here!?" General Hong shouted as his Gun Ru continued firing up at the Britannians as it retreated, being mindful not to hit the newcomers. "You and the rest of your force are supposed to be somewhere else!"

As he cleaved another Sutherland in half, Tohdoh hit the broadcast circuit. "Daoji One, Shogun One, we had a last minute change of plans," he said simply, even as he raced between two Gloucesters and performed a rocket assisted spin slash, destroying one and cutting off the lance wielding arm of the other. That last Gloucester attempted to move away as it drew its holstered machine gun, but Tohdoh was much faster in catching up and impaling it straight through. "We'll hold them off just long enough for the Da Long Dan and her compatriots to launch. From there we'll proceed accordingly. Shogun One out."

After closing the window, Tohdoh brought the Zangetsu on an intercept course with the Chinese knightmares, with Chiba and Senba soon joining him. In turn, several more Britannian units were pursuing the Chinese forces while evading the defensive fire; Tohdoh intended to counter that along the way. Immediately putting his landspinners into revolution, the general sped his knightmare across the ruined earth, banking around some of the incoming fire while responding with his machine cannons while the two Akatsukis beside him fired their own hand guns as well. From this, the attacking Britannians were now forced to turn away from the Chinese frames in order to defend their flank, firing back with their machine guns.

It was all for naught however, as the three Black Knight units easily banked around the shots, their landspinners completely unhindered by the terrain, all the while drawing close enough to employ their melee weapons. In a matter of seconds, Tohdoh and his wingmen merged into the Britannian formation, where they set to swerving through and cutting down Sutherlands and Gloucesters all the while maintaining their direction with the rest of the force; from an outside perspective, it almost looked akin to a group of lions savaging their way through a wildebeest herd. A charging wildebeest herd at that.

That image was further emphasized as Tohdoh had the Zangetsu leap over the continuous machine gun fire and land on a Sutherland, the force of the landing causing the Britannian knightmare to fall forward and tumble across the ground in a heap, before jumping at the last minute and latching his chest mounted slash harken on another enemy unit. From there, he retracted the harken line, pulling himself toward the knightmare while using the seidotou's thrusters for increased velocity, slashing it across the back as he merged into it. After that, he went back on his landspinners, twisted around and redeployed his machine cannons as he moved in reverse. Several more knightmares fell before him, but many more fired back, though their numbers dwindled further as Chiba and Senba moved in to support. When he destroyed those closest to the rear, Tohdoh turned entirely back around and put his landspinners to full power, allowing him to run down the Britannians, one after another, before ending them with well-placed slashes.

Soon enough, he moved past the Britannian mass and ended up merging with the Gun Ru formation, which parted to allow him entry as they kept firing back against the Britannians. A moment later, one of the Gun Rus pulled up beside him, twisting its torso around so that its "face" appeared to be making a corner glance toward the Zangetsu. "You really are the son of Saburo Tohdoh, Shogun One." Hong grudgingly complimented.

Tohdoh flashed a small smirk at the compliment before going back to business. "What's the status of the landships?"

"They can launch at any time. Just waiting for the right opening," Hong explained. "I don't suppose your boss has a plan for when they do, outside the set of coordinates he beamed us."

"All in due time Daoji One," Tohdoh replied simply. "For the moment, let's focus on providing that opening."

With that, the Zangetsu broke off and shot back into the fight, reengaging the Britannians in earnest.

Chinese land battleship Da Long Dan
Duchy of Jiangsu, Area 22 (China), Holy Britannian Empire
July 6, 2025

By now, the attention of the entire bridge crew was now fixed on the main monitor, which in turn displayed the battle to all. From what had started out as the makings of a clear defeat, one that every member of the Da Long Dan's crew had expected to be entirely inevitable, had shifted back into an even battle right before their eyes with the sudden entrance of the black knightmares and the sight of the Britannians being driven back. The intervention had hit everyone with cold shock; none of them would have believed, much less expected, that their supposed allies would double back for them. They had all entered the battle knowing that they were as good as dead, that no outside support would come for them, and that only sheer luck could be their salvation.

And yet, there the Black Knights were, riding in to save them all. "It's impossible..." Tao murmured, voicing the collective disbelief of his entire crew. "What could possibly have made them...?"

Zhou heard the question, but couldn't answer, as she herself was having trouble accepting what her eyes were telling her. Even so, for the first time since the Battle of Xiaopei had begun and very much against her best efforts, the CLA general began to feel the first vestiges of hope. Hope that they may yet survive.

Then, as if to purposely break the moment, the sensor operator suddenly spoke up. "General, the Black Knights are pushing the Britannians back in all sectors," he reported, looking up with a sudden surge of hope. "We may launch at any time."

Zhou's eyes quickly darted to the tactical screen and analyzed the various dots and lines. Indeed, the Black Knights were pushing back the assault forces in rapid succession; the regular knightmares had effectively herded the enemy central force to the outer boundaries of Xiaopei while the great Mikasa continued her one ship onslaught against the Britannian land fleet, keeping them from advancing as well. And as for the Rounds, they were also being held at bay, with Zero engaging the Knight of Two himself.

All of those elements factored in, Zhou realized that the opportune moment that they had been waiting for had finally come. And much more, it wouldn't last for too long. Thus managing to tear her gaze away from the screen, Zhou tapped a button on the arm of her chair. "All ships, this is General Zhou," she stated in her best commander's voice. "Launch immediately."

Upon that command, the Da Long Dan's bridge crew all turned back to their stations and began working once again. A second later, the entire landship rumbled with motion, forcing Zhou to grip the arms of her chair in order to keep herself stabilized. Here we go...

Lelouch had just parried another dagger attack from Dinadan when his sensors beeped in warning. The data window soon appearing in the upper right corner of his mask's visor, Lelouch watched as the ground shook all across Xiaopei, with the soil around five particular areas churning and shifting like bubbles in a cauldron. Taking those readings in, alongside how the CLA formations below were altering their collective movement in response, it wasn't hard to guess what was happening.

"So they're finally coming out..." Lelouch murmured, right before launching his left hand slash harken out to dissuade the Dinadan' renewed advance. Within the dark grey knightmare's cockpit, Johann spared a glance of his own toward his side monitor, momentarily watching the event play out.

One after another, the Chinese Long Dan-class land cruisers rose from the ground, their emergence causing the surrounding wasteland to thunder around them as earth shifted off of their pyramid hulls, each of which proudly bore the CLA's red star sigil. Their immense sizes made it so the process took several minutes to complete, causing the landships to appear more as lost relics that had just been unearthed than Chinese designed mobile fortresses; only the gun turrets that dotted their sides as well as the large scale cannons that were mounted on their designated bows gave indication to their true purpose. Altogether there were five ships, with four being smaller Long Dans while the fifth vessel was the CLA flagship Da Long Dan, distinguished by her larger size, unique step pyramid structure and the immense single cannon mounted on her own bow. It was also the one that was in the center of the formation, further indicating its special status.

As the landships slowly but steadily emerged from their hiding places, Lelouch couldn't help but feel a twinge of disgust well up in his stomach as he looked upon their greenish-brown hulls. Beside the fact that the Long Dans were lumbering and inelegant even by the standards of their ship type, their pyramid shaped structures reminded him too much of George Orwell's 1984, specifically of how the Ministry of Truth (Minitrue) had been described. Yet another dark analogue to the former Chinese Federation's tyranny, alongside its similarities to Orwell's nightmare. Sometimes he wondered if it was intentional.

He didn't have time to consider it however, as the Dinadan again charged while firing its hadron launcher. Again Lelouch evaded the shot – though he could take a rifle shot, he didn't dare trust his Blaze Luminous to hold out against a full powered hadron blast - and then responded in kind with both of his arm mounted slash harkens, but by that point the Dinadan had banked away. From there, the grey knightmare returned fire with another hadron spray.

"I must admit you surprise me Zero," Johann spoke over the comlink as he attacked. "During the Black Rebellion you were willing to abandon your own troops, even upon the cusp of victory..."

He quickly brandished his daggers and made successive slashes at the Artorius, which easily parried and counterattacked with its swords. "And now here you are, having intervened to fight a losing battle for a foreign army. One that is the antithesis of all that you reportedly stand for at that," the Knight of Two stated as he continued his attack. "To say you are difficult to understand would be putting it lightly."

Lelouch smirked as he threw back the Dinadan's blades and made several slashing attacks of his own. "And that is precisely why I have intervened." Lelouch stated as he again clashed blades against the Knight of Two's daggers. "Because this is indeed a lost battle. At least if the CLA were to remain unsupported."

"And you think your contingent can make the difference? One battleship and a hundred or so knightmares?" Johann questioned as he fired another missile shower, forcing the Artorius back behind its Blaze Luminous. "Granted your knightmares are far more advanced than most of the CLA's assets and your troops are better trained, but those only factor so much in the face of an armada."

"Only if I were to engage your forces in a pitched battle Sir Ernst," Lelouch was quick to correct as he switched out one of his MVS for his VARIS and fired a burst shot, forcing the Dinadan into a snap evasion. Moving to the side, the grey knightmare quickly launched its slash harkens, which Lelouch easily evaded himself. "Which I have absolutely no intention of doing."

Johann spared another look toward the antiquated landships, which by now had fully emerged from the earth and were starting to move on their caterpillar treads. "Right, you intend to guide the CLA force into retreat. And in order to do that, you will attempt to dissuade my forces from pursuit, as it is your only option."

Lelouch felt his lips curl into a sneer at that. He knew Johann would figure out his plan, as it was fairly obvious, but that didn't mean enjoyed his adversaries knowing his intentions. Especially when they were more delicate than his usual tactics. "You are insightful as ever, Owl of Britannia." he stated as he fired several shots from his VARIS in its standard setting.

Evading the VARIS shots by again, Johann quickly turned around and charged straight at the Artorius, firing his hadron launcher as he did. The Artorius easily dodged both the beam and the charging Dinadan by banking away.

"Still, I cannot help but wonder how you intend to accomplish such an objective," Johann inquired, firing off another shot from his launcher, which the Artorius twisted around. "Though your flagship could certainly evade my forces with her Gefjun Disturber, the Long Dans are just too slow to outrun my own landships, as well as my air forces," he pointed out. "They will hold out for a time, but they will never be able to evade us."

At that, Lelouch looked toward the Da Long Dan and her compatriots, now moving off to a given direction while their guns fired around them in defense while missiles launched from their VLS tubes against the surrounding enemy knightmares and the Britannian warships in the distance. It was then Lelouch noticed something out of the ordinary: though the Britannians were attacking with impunity, their pattern of fire was focused more on the four standard Long Dans. This left the Da Long Dan, the largest and most obvious target that would cripple the CLA's morale, relatively untouched, save for a few stray shots and attempted boarding actions by Britannian knightmares.

Though he wondered if there was something to that, Lelouch was to concentrated on evading another of the Dinadan's attacks, in which it again fired a lancing hadron shot, to think anything of it. "And even more so, your forces can only do so much in their defense Zero," Johann continued as he circledhis steed around the Artorius, magenta eyes gleaming. "Because the ships of the Long Dan-class cannot move far beyond thirty kilometers an hour, your forces are completely tied to them, leaving very little room to maneuver, much less evade any of my army."

The Knight of Two again drew his daggers and charged. "And so long as they remain close to those ships, your contingent will be forced into a battle of attrition, in which the outcome isn't determined by who dominates, but rather who lasts the longest," he then brought his daggers down against the Artorius' right sword, but was knocked away by a swipe of its arm. "A scenario that will only guarantee the Black Knights' defeat, whether they are destroyed or forced to retreat."

"Your point, Sir Ernst?" Lelouch growled back as he charged in himself this time, engaging his left Blaze Luminous for a barging attack.

The Dinadan naturally dodged to the side, allowing the black knightmare to charge ahead. "As I said, I cannot help but wonder just how you intend to save them, Zero. Even a 'miracle maker' such as yourself has limits."

Lelouch let out a strong, dark laugh at that notion. "Mere mortals have limits, Sir Ernst, but not I!" he stated as he aimed his VARIS, switching it back to Burst Mode in the process. "I have broken the land, subjugated the sea, caused the skies to thunder and have slain those who would claim godhood!" he then pulled the trigger, letting another crimson orb fly out. "And in time, I will tear down an empire that is said to be unmovable, even for a million men!"

Johann frowned as he again evaded, then countered with another hadron shot. Lelouch dodged in turn and fired all four of his slash harkens after him, but the Dinadan managed to bank away yet again. "Rest assured the Chinese will be saved, regardless of any tactical viewpoint you may possess," he stated as he took off after the Dinadan. "And it will be because I, who has no limits, deem it so!"

The Dinadan quickly fired several more hadron shots at the Artorius, only for the black giant to plow through them with both of its Blaze Luminous active and continue to close the gap, replacing his VARIS for his other MVS in the process. Suddenly caught off guard, it was all Johann could do to pull his knightmare back to evade the initial slash, which inadvertently left a small scar on the Dinadan's faceplate. By the time the second came however, he had been able to bring his daggers back up and parry. "You certainly have belief in yourself Zero. Just as one would have expected of you."

The Knight of Two's eyes narrowed into the Artorius' ruby eyes. "And it is precisely through that arrogance that you were defeated eight years ago," With that, the Dinadan launched forward suddenly, such that Lelouch hadn't expected it. A second later, the Artorius wore a similar scar on its faceplate to the Dinadan. The Knight of Two would have press advantage, but was forced back when the Artorius nearly bifurcated his frame.

"Touché," Lelouch replied harshly as he charged forward again, reengaging the Dinadan in a blade fight. As much as he didn't want to admit it, the Knight of Two had managed to get through to him on that one; the image of Suzaku shooting him in Kamine Island had flashed through his mind upon Johann's words.

It was at that point Lelouch decided to switch to the verbal offensive. "And what of you, Sir Ernst?" he inquired as he executed several slash attacks.

Johann arched an eyebrow as he deflected the sword attacks. "Me?" he replied, clearly not understanding. "I would think both my tactics and my intentions were obvious, Zero."

So you would have me to believe. Lelouch thought as he pressed the attack as well as his question. "I am not referring to either of those things, but rather..." he said, as he threw the Dinadan back with a well-placed swipe of his right sword before firing off his arm mounted harkens again, forcing the grey knightmare back into evasion. "...how do you justify your actions here?"

Having finally evaded the harkens, Johann responded by firing more hadron shots at the Artorius. However, as Lelouch put his own knightmare into evasion, he saw the expression on Johann's face; a very slight yet very clear expression of hesitance. As expected. "It is said that the Knights of the Round, with certain exceptions, are keepers of honor and valor..." Lelouch continued on as he charged, slashing at the Dinadan only for it to move back. "Men and women chosen by His Majesty the Emperor to represent Britannia and its so-called 'virtues'."

Lelouch delivered a hard blow against the Dinadan's daggers as he went on. "So tell me Sir Ernst, where is the honor and valor in this?" he almost demanded. "Fighting to subjugate a downtrodden land and an already enslaved people, all in the name of eight tyrants?"

The Knight of Two could only remain silent, even as he concentrated on his defense. Despite Johann's strong emotional boundaries, Lelouch saw that his words were reaching him. "I'm sure you've been to Luoyang by now," he pressed on. "You've seen how the Chinese are living under the current regime. Even I must admit, compared to what I've seen eight years ago in Japan, the Chinese are likely suffering far more than any Numbers before them."

"If you're trying to generate some form of sympathy for the Twenty-Twos..." Johann started to reply.

Lelouch interrupted with a small laugh. "I don't need to generate sympathy from you Sir Ernst. I already know you hold such emotion toward the Chinese, as well as all other Numbers."

Again Lelouch was greeted by silence and a passive expression, but that didn't matter. He knew what he was speaking of. "You are not the only one whose eye is keen," Lelouch went on. "When we spoke that night, I too saw just a small hint of emotion when I claimed nobody cared about the Twenty-Twos. Yes, you did well to shield your emotions, just as you are doing now, but that hint was enough for me to understand."

Lelouch smirked as he continued. "You are not a full blooded Britannian. Your mother was Kenyan and your father was half-German, which makes you only a quarter Britannian. Therefore, it is safe to assume you, alongside your sister Dorothea, were heavily discriminated growing up, such that you were treated as an Honorary Britannian in all but name," he emphasized that point with a heavy slash, which Johann just barely managed to deflect. "You personally experienced the hellish existence that the empire forces upon outsiders, something that no 'pureblood' would ever come to know."

The Artorius then launched its arm mounted slash harkens out again, forcing the Dinadan to bank around them. In response, Johann reversed while firing another hadron beam, which the black knightmare evaded in turn. "And with that experience, came a unique outlook toward the Numbers as well as all 'impure' Britannians. That in spite of all your loyalty toward Britannia, you cannot help but see them as no less human from yourself."

Johann, attempting to regain the offensive, quickly having the Dinadan move to stab the Artorius through the head, but Lelouch easily deflected the strike by crossing his blades together. "So again I ask, Sir Ernst, how do you justify what you are doing here?" he repeated. "How do you make right what both your personal honor as a Round and your conscience tell you is wrong?"

Though the Knight of Two remained visibly emotionless save for the strain of combat, Lelouch wasn't fooled. He knew everything that he had just said was true, from what Dorothea had told him back during his days in the Homeland and from his own experiences with Johann during the same time. In that regard, it was a bit of a low blow, but Lelouch had never adverse to such tactics. That and if he could actually break Johann's emotional barrier and sew indecision within his mind, then the tide of the battle would shift toward the Black Knights and the CLA.

No more words were uttered after that, even as the two Britannian designed knightmares continued to trade blow after blow with one another. For a time, Lelouch even thought that his attack had worked.

But then, Johann did something Lelouch had never seen him do before. As the two knightmares brought their respective blades together, he saw Johann flash a highly uncharacteristic smile across his lips. "An excellent psychological attack, Zero," he complimented, again catching Lelouch off guard as he returned to the offensive. "Your words hold both great power and charisma, enough to instill question within your enemies and allegiance within your followers."

He then kicked away from the Artorius, using the other knightmare as a springboard of sorts, right before firing another hadron shot attack while still in midair. "However, I'm afraid your attack was too shallow this time."

As Lelouch deflected the shots, the Knight of Two went on. "You ask how I justify such apparent hypocrisy? How I can fight for Britannia's subjugation of China when I myself have felt similar discrimination from the 'pure bloods'? That is all too simple to answer," Johann stated, his own voice growing with projected power. "Because it is the command of His Majesty the Emperor!"

Now it was Lelouch's turn to feel his emotions rise as he head the Emperor's name was invoked, the image of his father and his Geassing away his memories flashing through his mind. Aloofness now replaced with growing anger, Lelouch brandished his swords and charged forward to slash at the Dinadan again. Before he could reach the enemy knightmare however, the Dinadan dodged the initial strike, its left dagger nearly cutting off the Artorius' arm as it did. Fortunately Lelouch managed to evade at the last second, the result being a deep gouge within the upper arm as opposed to the severing of the entire limb.

"I am the Knight of Two! The second of the Rounds!" Johann declared as he circled around and fired his hadron launcher, forcing the Artorius to evade again. "My role is not to question my liege's command, only to execute it! And though I may hold hesitation at the onset, in my heart I do not doubt the righteousness of his command, as it is the role of His Majesty to deem what is right and what is wrong!"

He then moved to slash at the Artorius' torso, only for the black knightmare to deflect with its Blaze Luminous. "If His Majesty wishes me to act as his sword to strike down his enemies and force their submission, then I will follow that wish regardless of any personal discomfort. For such actions are deemed right by His Majesty!"

"Johann...!" Lelouch snarled under his breath as he fought back, executing a flurry of attacks. The Dinadan evaded it as usual, but one of the slashes managed to strike its left hip armor, taking out a large chunk in the process. Despite that success, the Dinadan remained unhindered.

Knowing the reason behind that attack, Johann inwardly found amusement that, though Zero held great influence, he himself was not unswayable to his adversary's words. A part of him wondered if that weakness played a role in his capture at Kamine. "This is how I justify the submission of the Numbers, Zero! Alongside my current mission!" he declared, firing his slash harkens and forcing the Artorius to reengage its Blaze Luminous again. "So long as His Majesty wills it so, my conscience will always be clear!"

Lelouch was about to open to reply derisively on that, but once more, something struck out in his mind: Johann mentioning his 'current mission'. Not unlike how he saw the Da Long Dan remain untouched by the Britannian advance, Lelouch felt there was something more to that line. Wasn't the Rounds' mission obvious enough? To hunt down and destroy the CLA? If so, then why did Johann phrase those words as such, defining it as an abstract 'mission' rather than speaking the obvious fact?

Unfortunately, he couldn't fathom the prospect much longer, as the Dinadan swung around again to fire its hadron launcher at close-range, forcing Lelouch to bank to the left. From there, he returned fire with his right arm's slash harken.

Shattering another Sutherland with a spinning harken attack, Li followed it up by twisting around and firing a baryon blast. All at once, a whole line of Britannian knightmares went up in smoke, with the remnants being easily picked apart by a group of Akatsukis. Li sneered as he watched the jet black knightmares tear their way through the remnants, stung over how he was relying more on Japanese and Britannian exiles to properly fight the imperialists than his own countrymen. Fortunately that sting didn't last too long; he was too focused on clearing the way for the Da Long Dan and the others to dwell over such things.

Turning the Shen Hu's head around, Li stole a glance toward the great landships that he, the Black Knights and the remaining Gun Ru forces were escorting. Moving as fast as their caterpillar treads could move them, the Da Long Dan and her four sisters lumbered across the earth with all the grace of boulders rolling down a hill, their CIWS and missile emplacements spewing death at any enemy knightmare that drew close and their aft cannon turrets returning the fire of the Britannian landships with earnest. The Gun Ru formations moved alongside them like ants beside their queens as Akatsukis darted against their Britannian contemporaries, also keeping up with the landships, all the while various gunships continued their airborne waltz, either attacking each other or providing close air support for the ground fighters. Meanwhile, the Mikasa hung further back, overlooking the formation as a black sheep dog keeping watch, while the Britannian land fleet remained at a distance, raining HV cannon and missile fire down upon the Chinese and Black Knights alike.

Such was the point when one HV cannon shot slammed against the hull of the Jie Geng, taking off a large portion of the Long Dan-class cruiser's aft quarter. Though she was still moving, the damage was done, and it didn't take long for her aft to become increasingly battered from the Britannian onslaught, the enemy landships acting as sharks sensing blood. At that, Li turned around to fire a snapshot back at the enemy ships while Hei attempted to move the Shen Wu into a shielding position, but it was all too late. Soon enough, the Jie Geng erupted in a massive explosion, spraying debris all across the desert as well as taking out a large number of Gun Rus in the process.

Li cursed as he shielded his eyes from the glare of the explosion, then quickly keying a comlink to the Mikasa. "Shangdi One to Mikasa, what are you doing!?" he bellowed with more force than he intended. "My ground forces will be wiped out at this rate!"

"Shangdi One, Mikasa, we're doing all we can to cover you!" Minami quickly responded, his voice holding no small amount of terseness. It was clear what the Mikasa's captain thought about Li's bellowing, as well as how the Black Knights' prized flagship was stuck shepherding the slothful and ungainly Long Dans. "Just continue on course; we should reach Waypoint Alfa in approximately fifteen minutes! Mikasa out!"

Resisting the urge to spit, Li instead focused on evading a charging Gloucester, easily moving aside to dodge its lance, before shooting out his left harken and sending a surge of electricity into the frame. As soon as it detonated, he retracted the harken and moved turned to parry a MVS slash from another Gloucester, then brought his jian up to slash it across the torso. A second later, that Gloucester fell, but by that point the Shen Hu had long moved away.

Momentarily in the clear, Li stole a glance toward his side monitor, which displayed a tactical map of Xiaopei and a marked area due west (the aforementioned Waypoint Alfa) in the side corner. That was the set of coordinates the Artorius had beamed to the CLA forces right before their intervention. Up front it looked like nothing, as it was a completely random area of Xiaopei that held no specific geographical formations nor compositions; just another part of the wasteland. However, as the coordinates had been designated by Zero himself, then it was logical that he had something out there.

Probably one of his so-called "miracles", waiting to be sprung. Li thought as he cut into another Sutherland. He allowed himself a small smile there. No more than a few days ago he had spoken out against Zero's brand of tactics and the "miracles" he had employed in Japan. Now, he found himself depending on one to save his army as well as throw the Britannians off their trail. The irony could have eclipsed the sun.

Shaking his head, he returned to the fight, sending the Shen Hu plowing through a Sutherland formation with both slash harkens spinning. Several of the Britannian knightmares fell within his wake, but one managed to slip away, firing a grenade from its assault rifle as it went. Fortunately Li was fast enough to deflect it with his left harken, which remained spinning, and then counterattack with his right. One electrical surge later, the Britannian unit was nothing but ashes.

Just then, the Shen Wu charged within Li's field of vision, with three Sutherlands rammed against its baryon shield. A second later, the Shen Wu cut its speed and dropped the shield, effectively flinging the Sutherlands across the ground with inertia. Then, brandishing its guan dao, the Chinese knightmare surged forward again, finishing the Britannian units with a single slash each as it went.

Li nodded with approval as Hei spun the guan dao overhead and charged at additional targets, the general himself soon moving to fight alongside his subordinate. At the moment Hei was the only Tianshou alongside him; Bai was chasing after the Knight of Five and Yin was engaged against the Knight of Eight. Even so, one of the Tianshou, as well as two of the Four Beasts, was more than enough to keep the Britannians away from an easy victory, and it also meant Li didn't have to leave everything to the Black Knights.

"Incoming missile barrage!" one of the Da Long Dan's controllers suddenly warned. At that, Li turned the Shen Hu's head around, where he caught sight of the Britannian airships launching an entire wall of missiles.

Gritting his teeth, Li reengaged the Hu Hao cannon, sweeping the resultant baryon beam across the sky, obliterating several of the missiles at once. Even so, the ace was unable to keep the entire barrage back as several missiles had managed to evade the baryon blast. And though the Mikasa and the landships shot down an additional number with their CIWS and interceptor missiles respectively, a large number still fell upon the Chinese and Black Knight units, destroying several knightmares and causing additional damage to the landships in a series of explosions.

"Tama De!" Li cursed again as he looked over the aftermath of the attack. The Chinese forces were still moving, but the Long Dans' hulls were peppered even further with damage and rising smoke, while several more of the ever dwindling Gun Rus had been obliterated. The only consolation, it seemed, was that the Da Long Dan remained untouched; for some reason Li didn't understand, the Britannians were deliberately avoiding her. However, that was only a minor consolation regardless. We'll be lucky to last fifteen more seconds at this rate!

"Enemy reinforcements inbound!" the same operator called out, just as the Shen Hu's sensors picked up additional enemy knightmares coming in from the pursuing landships. The Mikasa and the Long Dans all launched missile waves of their own to deter them, but once again several units managed to evade. As such, Li twisted the Shen Hu around and charged back at the incoming swarm, the Shen Wu following close by.

The Sutherland instantly bubbling from within her grip, Kallen quickly tossed the stricken knightmare aside and moved away just as it exploded. A Gloucester then charged in and attempted to impale her with its MVS, but by that point Alfred had moved in and fired a rapid fire burst from surger, peppering the blue knightmare with radiant wave shots before it could even draw close to Kallen's unit. It too joined its comrade in oblivion, all the while several more came flying in with swords, lances, rifles and bazookas to bear.

Turning to face the oncoming formation, Kallen and Alfred both unleashed their surgers, launching twin radiant wave streams into the swarm. Several more knightmares fell to the streams, but the formation continued on, forcing the two Gurens to execute evasive maneuvers while returning fire. Kallen grimaced at that as she launched another radiant wave stream into a bazooka touting Gloucester, only to watch as two Sutherlands surge forward with their stun tonfas extended, forcing her to parry with her fork knife. As she kicked one of the Sutherlands into the other and finished both off with a well-aimed grenade, she couldn't help but feel that the Britannians were fighting even harder than usual.

It's because they were just about to win when we appeared. Kallen thought as she dodged a machine gun burst from another Sutherland and fired her slash harken in turn, knocking the head off the Britannian machine. She then finished it off by maneuvering behind and stabbing her fork knife into its cockpit, then quickly moving away as additional units came after her. She responded by firing her surger in a sweeping motion, taking out at least three more Sutherlands, but the rest managed to close in, firing their machine guns. As they were too close to evade, Kallen engaged her radiant wave shield and deflected the bullets, then using the break to launch herself at the group, where she began taking down the Sutherlands with her knife.

Not far away from her, Alfred let out a battle cry as he impaled a Gloucester on his lance and then, imitating his commander, flung the unit into a Sutherland right before it exploded, taking out both frames. He then went into a full charge, tearing through two more Sutherlands as he went before slamming the prong into another Gloucester and ripping it free to allow the enemy knightmare to fall over. And then with his latest kill, Alfred yet again twirled the lance around gracefully before targeting another unit.

Taking a corner glance of her wingman's performance as she boiled another Sutherland within her grasp, Kallen arched an eyebrow. "Are you going to hold onto that thing for the whole fight?" she asked, right before the Sutherland blew. She then turned and launched the surger via rocket harken into a nearby Gloucester, where she repeated the same process.

As he smashed the lance into another Sutherland, skewing it straight through the cockpit, Alfred smirked. "You're damn right I am," he called back as he flung that unit aside and went into another charge. "In fact, I think these should be secondary armament for the Isshiki!"

Kallen rolled her eyes on that as she evaded a lance wielding Sutherland's charge and shot a grenade into its back. Before she could move away however, another Sutherland charged through the resultant explosion to fire a rifle grenade at her, which Kallen was barely able to deflect with her shield. The Sutherland then attempted to flank her, but by that point Kallen had recovered and easily fired a radiant wave stream into the Sutherland's upper torso, causing it to detonate before it could fire another shot.

Momentarily in the clear, Kallen took a glance toward her tacmap. By now the Mikasa and the Chinese ships were approximately five kilometers away from Waypoint Alfa, and though the Britannians were hounding them relentlessly, they were still progressing regardless. Seeing that, both relief and anxiety fell upon the Black Knight ace; the battle wasn't yet lost, but there was still over nine minutes left to go. Nine minutes of fighting for survival, against a vast Britannian air fleet.

"Major!" Alfred called out as Kallen's sensors beeped in warning.

Instinctively climbing upward, Kallen watched as the Shen Long fell right through where she had been, strangely in an inverted, head first pose. After falling back a few more meters, the Chinese knightmare flipped over and corrected itself, reassuming a fighting pose. "You bitch!" Yin howled in fury toward her attacker.

Before Kallen could contact the Chinese pilot, a howling cackle erupted over the radio as the Safir charged onto the scene, lashing its whips at the Shen Long. "Is that all you've got, China Girl?" Nena taunted as she pressed her attack, the Chinese knightmare barely evading her strikes while attempting to counter with its shuang gous, which were also dodged or deflected. "Surely you can dance more than this!"

Expertly smacking the whips aside with her shuang gous on the next attack, Yin glowered back. "On your fucking grave!" she shouted as she lashed her right hand slash harken out, only to watch as the Safir shot to the left and evaded it. The Britannian knightmare then maneuvered around and attempted to flail its Chinese opponent across the back, with Yin just barely turning and deflecting the blow with a spinning harken in time.

However, while the initial defense was successful, Nena followed up quickly with her other whip, putting much more power behind this attack. The result was the Shen Long again being knocked back, its shield thrown off while the rest of the knightmare was open. Thus, once more laughing as she went, Nena lined up and brought down both whips for the finishing blow while Yin attempted to react, but couldn't reoriented her knightmare in time.

As such, both devicers were surprised to see the Guren Nishiki move in and engage its radiant wave shield, throwing off both whips. "Can't let you do that, Britannian!" Kallen shouted as she then fired another beam from her surger, forcing the Safir to make a jump backwards. In the middle of that act, Alfred attempted to move in and engage the seventh generation knightmare with his lance, but Nena easily, and elegantly, evaded the initial attack and countered with her right whip, throwing back the former Glaston just as he raised his own shield.

Moving in where her wingman left off, Kallen launched forward with her surger extended, ready to ensnare the Safir within its claws. However, just as she got close, the Safir raised its right arm and deployed its Blaze Luminous, which held off against the surger's crimson glow. "Well well, the Red Dragoness herself," Nena spoke with clear vehemence. "Are you trying to cut in?"

"You..." Yin growled at the Guren Nishiki as she reoriented her knightmare. "I didn't ask for your help, you fake dragon...!"

That caught Kallen off guard. Fake dragon? she thought confusedly, until she remembered what the Shen Long's name translated to. She frowned as she threw the Safir back. "Too bad, I'm giving it to you anyway little one," Kallen called out. "Rounds are not to be taken lightly!" she declared as she followed her attack up by firing a grenade, only for it to be deflected by one of the Safir's whips.

The Shen Long then closed the distance itself and moved to slash with its swords, but the Safir again evaded, all the while Nena kept her eye on the Nishiki. "Ah yes, you were the one who fought Gino over Area 7," she recalled as the Gurens charged again, fork knife and lance brandished as the Safir spun, whips deflecting both the Black Knight knightmares and their Chinese ally. "And if memory serves, you failed to defeat him."

The Knight of Eight then spun the Safir around in a dance-like twirl, the whips moving along in elegant patterns, forcing away the three knightmares. "So what makes you think you have any chance against me?" she shouted as she lashed at the Nishiki again.

However, much to Nena's surprise, as well as Alfred and Yin's, Kallen didn't dodge the attack. Instead, she reached up with her surger and grasped the whip, claws holding it in place, while the Guren's sapphire eyes stared out against the Safir's emerald ones. A cold pause soon followed as both knightmares remained in place, glaring down one another while struggling to break the hold between them.

And then Kallen spoke up again. "Rei Two, break off and return to the main force," she commanded in a soft tone. "I will handle things here."

Somewhat put off that his commander was going to fight the Round without him, Alfred knew that the Mikasa and the Chinese ships took priority. "As you command, Rei Leader," he acknowledged before turning his Guren around.

Kallen then glanced over to the Shen Long. "You should go to. There's no more reason for you to be here."

Yin's eyes seemed to burn at that notion. "Like hell! I'm not done with her yet!" she shouted as she shot forward, attempting to slash the Safir's extended whip. At that point however, Nena managed to rip the weapon out of the Guren's grasp, just managing to avoid it getting cut off, while the Chinese knightmare settled beside its Black Knight ally.

Looking out at the two knightmares in front of her, both of which glared back with projected ferocity, Nena smiled with growing anticipation. "And I beheld two red dragons, each having seven crowned heads and ten horns." she called out to either knightmare. "Their tails drew a third of the stars out of the sky and cast them to the earth."

Kallen, knowing the exact text Nena was paraphrasing, couldn't help but smirk. "You better not slow me down, fledgling."

Yin smirked back. "Same to you, poser," she said, her hands tightening around the control sticks. "Despite what that whore just said, there's only one true dragon here!"

With that, both knightmares charged forward again, the Safir lashing its whips around as they came.

Espousing a battle cry, Tohdoh quickly impaled his latest kill, a Gloucester, through the torso before ripping the blade out and knocking the stricken knightmare away, where it harmlessly exploded. A pair of Sutherlands surged passed the explosion, raining machine gun fire down upon the jet black knightmare, but the Zangetsu easily banked around it and closed the distances, using the rockets on the seidotou for additional propulsion. From there, Tohdoh converged on one Sutherland and slashed it diagonally at the center, then turned around and fired his machine cannons into the second. After that, a third unit shot up from behind him, attempting to impale him with its lance, but Tohdoh simply jetted to the side to avoid the weapon and then execute a side spin, cutting into the Sutherland's cockpit block as it charged.

When Tohdoh reoriented himself, he noticed that the seidotou now had a fresh coating of blood across its edge. Inwardly finding the color fitting for his sword, he turned around and launched off to another enemy formation, one that had been drawing closer to the CLA landships. He moved in alone now, as he had deployed Senba and Chiba and their respective units to attacking other Britannian knightmare forces across the immediate area, supporting Zero Squadron and the other Black Knight forces who were still fighting as such. He doubted they would do serious damage, but at least they would be hindered. Between their efforts and those of Asahina and Urabe's and their respective supporters in protecting the Long Dans, they just may last long enough to spring Zero's trap.

In the meantime, Tohdoh had to do his part as well, and so he sped into the Britannian formation like a lone wolf into a flock of sheep. Despite the Britannians taking quick note of his advance and responding with evasive maneuvers and concentrated firepower, Tohdoh had little issue in piercing through the defensive screen and striking at the Imperials, cutting through their lines with singular, well placed sword strikes. Several attempted to group together and rain bullets, grenades and rockets upon him in a collective barrage, but Tohdoh evaded these attacks with ease while drawing closer to his attackers, right before deftly striking them down one after the other. From there, the Britannians scattered to attack him at all angles, but once more they could not hurt him.

Unfortunately, Tohdoh's continuing success didn't extend to the rest of his forces, as he soon found out from a nearby flash. Casting a corner glance, he saw that one of the Long Dans had taken a serious hit, evident by the smoke rising from a large hole in its armor. All the while the knightmares began to converge on it like flies to fresh carrion.

Tohdoh's lips curled into a grimace at that. This is taking too long! he thought while slashing another Gloucester down the middle. If the CLA had only possessed modern technology, or simply faster landcraft, they would have reached the destination all too long ago. Damn the Chinese and their antiquated army!

From there, he cleaved another pair of Sutherlands in two with a spin slash, then evaded the fire from another Sutherland's machine gun. Banking to the right of the enemy machine, he quickly redeployed his machine cannons, spraying a sufficient amount of bullet holes across the blue knightmare before speeding back, allowing it to detonate. After that, another Sutherland attempted to move in from behind with its stun tonfa extended, but Tohdoh simply struck it with his seidotou's hilt mounted harken. The stricken knightmare fell back, allowing Tohdoh to twist around and finish it off with a running slash before its devicer could recover.

Suddenly, just as Tohdoh turned the Zangetsu around to target another enemy knightmare, a great field of white enveloped his monitors. Instantly blinded by the glare, only by instinctive reflex was Tohdoh able to raise his seidotou up into a defensive posture, thereby deflecting a strike that would have finished the Zangetsu and its pilot permanently. A moment later, Tohdoh was able to look back again, his blurred vision just managing to depict the Caius readying for another strike. This time, Tohdoh not only parried the blow, but threw the Britannian knightmare's sword away and countered, forcing the Round exclusive knightmare back.

"Not bad. Not bad at all," Michael exclaimed with evident bloodlust as he flew back a few meters, stylishly bringing the Caius' broadswords to his sides, and then charging back to clash his blades against the Zangetsu's once more. By now the remnants of the Britannian forces had moved onto their main target, leaving only the Knight of Five and the Black Knights General in the immediate ground. "So you're Ki-yo-shi-ro Toe-doe..." the Round let out, emphasizing each syllable to Tohdoh's name as if he had trouble pronouncing it. "The man of miracles who defeated the advance on Itsukushima, supposedly without knightmares."

Despite the vicious tone behind those words and the great power behind the Caius' attack, Tohdoh himself grinned. "That would be me," he replied almost candidly as he pushed back. "And you're Michael Raleigh, Knight of Eight and Paladin of Britannia. The man who led Britannia's charge in Seville."

"Damn right I did!" Michael howled as he broke the lock between the two knightmares and attacked with his slash harkens, forcing the Zangetsu to make a jump backward to evade. "And let me tell you those Spaniards were piss-poor fighters; not nearly as bad as these Chinese fuck ups, but definitely boring to fight. Hard to believe they once had an empire that rivaled Britannia's."

The Zangetsu then made a charge of its own at the Caius, but the orange knightmare again fired its flash cannon, forcing Tohdoh to break in an effort to shield his eyes. However, he was not completely helpless, as he pulled his knightmare backward and had it crouch just as the Caius attempted to bifurcate it, from which the Black Knight unit redeployed its machine cannons and fired off a spray. Only the timely activation of its Blaze Luminous generators kept the Caius from sustaining any damage. "I'm so glad you Elevens can put up more of a struggle!" Michael hollered as he brought his swords around again and launched for the Zangetsu, which was just able to deflect its attack. "It's been a long time since I had this much fun!"

"We aim to please," Tohdoh dryly commented as he slashed at the Caius, forcing the Knight of Eight on the defensive. "I hope for your sake you can keep up!" Tohdoh then leaped over the Caius and performed a midair rocket assisted side slash, nearly cleaving into the exposed cockpit block, but Michael lunged the Caius forward and evaded by mere meters. He then spun around himself and surged back to impale the Zangetsu with one of his broadswords, but Tohdoh deflected the attack and then moved for an overhead chop, only for the Caius to deflect the blow with its Blaze Luminous and then throw the black knightmare some meters away.

Recovering quickly, Tohdoh watched as the Caius drew in for the kill, at which he executed another spin slash to drive it back. Following that, he redeployed his machine cannons and riddled bullets across the Caius' frame. However, much to Tohdoh's minor surprise, this did not have the desired effect as the bullets were unable to pierce the Britannian unit's thick armor, all the while the orange knightmare leaped up into the air to perform a vertical strike. Only the timely reversal did Tohdoh avoid getting split down the center, at which he brought the seidotou up again and moved to impale the Caius through the flash cannon's maw, only for Michael to deflect the attack. From that, the two continued to exchange sword strikes as they raced across the field.

"Hell yes! This is exactly what I was hoping for!" the Knight of Eight howled with excitement as he kept slashing at the Zangetsu. Executing a powerful hammer blow in the middle, he threw the black knightmare back several meters, right before performing a midair leap so that he could descend and bring both broadswords against the seidotou. Tohdoh responded by firing another spray from his machine cannons, this time at the Caius' head, which knocked around its main sensor system somewhat, right before engaging the seidotou's rockets and knocking away the orange knightmare. The Black Knight general then moved out to strike the cockpit, but the Round recovered quickly and parried the blow with his left broadsword. It then proceeded to counterslash, nearly cleaving the Zangetsu diagonally across the chest; only Tohdoh's timely maneuvering kept that from occurring.

Right after that, Tohdoh felt a bead of sweat roll down from his forehead. As much as he hated to admit it, the runt known as Michael Raleigh was indeed worthy of the Rounds' mantle. Only Suzaku had given him as much difficulty with the sword, to say nothing of his piloting skills and how he was capitalizing on his knightmare's strengths while marginalizing its weaknesses. Had it been any other time, Tohdoh would have appreciated such an opponent.

But not now, when we have so much on the line. Tohdoh thought as he launched forward and slashed back at the Caius, only to watch the Caius knock the strike away with its Blaze Luminous and then bring its broadswords to bare, repeating the exchange. There's no telling how much damage he'll do if he slips past!

"Too slow!" Michael's voice suddenly rang out as he smashed his left broadsword's hilt into the Zangetsu's head, causing a hard shudder to erupt across the frame. He then brought his right broadsword in for the kill, but Tohdoh deflected it and responded by launching his chest mounted slash harken, causing the Caius to move back and evade it. Retracting that harken quickly, Tohdoh launched the Zangetsu forward and brought down the seidotou against his opponent's crossed broadswords.

"Oooh, so close!" Michael taunted, the Caius' neon green eyes glaring into the Zangetsu's orange mono-eye across their respective blades. "No wonder Suzaku and Princess Cornelia had problems against you. You really are that good!"

Then a thought occurred to the Knight of Eight. "And now that I think of it, you were Suzaku's master to begin with, weren't you?"

Tohdoh felt himself bristle at the dual mention of his wayward student. "A long time ago," he growled back. "Before you Britannians caused his downfall."

Michael laughed. "Good. Because I really want to see how he'll react when I present him your head," he grinned viciously. "Just your head."

"And what if I take yours first?" a new voice suddenly cut in. All at once, the Caius and the Zangetsu separated as the one armed Shen Que came charging in, slashing its dadao toward the former. The Caius quickly deflected the blow with its Blaze Luminous, but the power behind it was still enough to throw it back some distance.

Spinning its dadao around stylishly, the Shen Que then pointed the blade toward the Caius while the Zangetsu moved in beside it. "Sorry Shogun One, but I still have some unfinished business with this imperialist bastard," Bai announced, his eyes gleaming with bloodlust toward the Round and disdain toward the Black Knight. "Feel free to head back to the main fight, 'sir.'"

Tohdoh could only blink at the newcomer. In spite of his words and the vast difference in rank, the Black Knights General knew he was being talked down to. "Your unit is damaged, Tianshou Two," he had the Zangetsu nod toward the Shen Que's missing left arm.

"Just a scratch, sir," Bai retorted, almost scornfully. "And besides, I could lose both arms and still beat this ta ma de hun dan."

Before Tohdoh could reply, the Caius was in motion, practically flinging itself at the one armed knightmare with vengeance. "Who's a mother-humping son of a bitch!?" Michael bellowed as he slashed with his broadswords, the Shen Que just managing to deflect each blow with its dadao. The orange knightmare then countered by launching its one remaining slash harken, but the Caius evaded and banked at the Shen Que's open left for the kill. Only a swift turn and Bai putting said harken into a spinning shield did he deflect the stroke.

Just as the two knightmares locked however, the Zangetsu was also on the move, speeding at the Caius cockpit block with the seidotou's rockets at full burn. Seeing that, Michael launched his knightmare backward, narrowly evading the Zangetsu's swing, while the Shen Que retracted its slash harken and moved to pursue, its Black Knight "comrade" following close behind.

Twisting around to simultaneously deflect the swords of either attacker, Michael let out an unnerving laugh. "Just when I thought this couldn't get any better!" he howled with excitement as he entered into an exchange with either unit. "The Miracle Man on one end, and one of the Heavenly Beasts on the other!"

A disturbing glint of ecstasy soon formed on the Knight of Five's face. "How did I get so damn lucky!?" he called out as he slashed back at either knightmare.

As he continued his attack, Bai was quick to note that the Zangetsu wasn't retreating into the background. "I said you're not needed here Shogun One!" Bai growled amidst his offensive. There was no way he was going to let this Black Knight steal his prey, no matter how skilled or legendary he was. "You're better off fighting the main battle...!"

Despite the message and the present fighting, Tohdoh felt dark bemusement toward the Chinese pilot's anger. "Sorry Captain, but I'm afraid I too have unfinished business with this one," he said, the recently brought up image of Suzaku Kururugi flashing through his mind. There was no way Tohdoh was going to let this impotent Round go after his digging at that wound, evidenced when he made another rocket assisted slash at the Caius' shoulder. "If you want him, nyen ching ren, you're going to have to beat me to him!"

If the Black Knight not moving off into the distance caused anger, then that same Black Knight calling him "young one" in Mandarin only infuriated Bai beyond measure. Bringing his dadao to his side, quickly stepped up his assault as the three knightmares continued to flit across the ground.

No changes still... Johann thought as he looked over to his side monitor, which continued to display the Long Dans and Black Battleship moving across the field. Even the Artorius' renewed VARIS attack did not break his concentration on the main battle, though he obviously had to divert some energy at keeping his adversary at bay. All the same however, Johann did not lose sight of the true objective.

As rare an occurrence as it was, the Knight of Two remained somewhat perplexed by his opponent's strategy. It was nearing twenty minutes since the landships had emerged, and they were still moving along at their original course and speed, making absolutely no changes to either. They maintained their original V formation, albeit accounting for the loss of one of their number, while the Black Battleship remained behind them, providing escort. And though the Black Knights had deployed some forces in attacking Johann's land fleet, the bulk of their knightmares and the CLA's remained centered around those landships, keeping the Britannian forces from encroaching. In other words, twenty minutes were about to pass, and yet there had been no changes to the battle; it really seemed as though the Black Knights and Chinese were betting on fighting off Johann's pursuit through conventional warfare alone.

Johann knew better, of course. Zero was many things, but a conventional thinker was not one of them. He obviously had more planned than this; besides his earlier exchange with Zero over his tactics, the masked revolutionary's modus operadi was well documented. The question was what was it? What kind of miracle did the Demon King have in store?

As he dodged another VARIS shot from the Artorius, Johann yet again recalled everything he had studied about his opponent, namely the records Princess Cornelia had made during and after Area 11's destruction. As the Knight of Two had read, Zero's nominal tactics, his "miracles", took the form of singular, seemingly impossible feats of battlefield manipulation. During the beginning or midpoint of a battle, Zero would perform his miracle, which was usually some form of terrain shifting, bringing down his opponent's numbers in spectacular fashion while simultaneously demoralizing the survivors with its sheer magnitude, and then deploy his main forces to wipe out the remnants. He had used this strategy to great efficiency in such battles as Narita and the Black Rebellion, and given the conditions of the present battle, Johann did not doubt that was what awaited him here. In fact, that was the most likely explanation behind this whole trek across the wasteland; Zero was luring Johann and his fleet into the miracle's range.

This was where Johann's perplexity laid, such that he lacked the answers needed to form an effective counterstrategy around. First, the usual method of terrain shifting would obviously be ineffective, given that a fair number of Johann's forces were airborne; unless Zero intended to whip up a sandstorm, which was possible but unlikely given the Black Knights' rapid deployment, then Johann's aircraft could simply fly over any trap as they had Li's sand pits. Granted, his landships and non-VTOL transported knightmares would possibly be incapacitated, but that wouldn't be enough to halt the Britannian pursuit. This meant that the "miracle" would affect the air as it did the ground, making it all the more difficult to identify.

Second, he did not know the exact vector from which the miracle would occur. Would it strike from the air, or the ground? From the north or the south? From one direction, multiple, or would it be over an immediate zone? And third and most importantly, he did not know the miracle's nature. Would it destroy his forces outright, or simply inhibit them? Was it something that could be prevented early on, or would he only be able to destroy or evade it when it was active? How long would the process take and how much of his forces would he need to commit to doing so?

"You're slowing down, Sir Ernst," Zero called out as he launched his left arm slash harken, which Johann quickly evaded. This time however, one of the tips managed to brush against the Dinadan's shoulder pauldron, causing sparks to fly from the graze. "Don't tell me you've exhausted yourself so early into our match."

Grimacing against the resulting vibration, Johann brought his hadron launcher back up. "Not at all, Zero," the Knight of Two smoothly retorted as he fired, putting the Artorius into evasion. "Not when we're still in the middlegame."

At that, the Artorius crouched under the hadron beam and returned fire with its VARIS, putting Johann into evasion as well. There laid another mystery that Johann, to his mixed perplexity and minutely growing frustration, had yet to figure out: Zero's sudden growth in combat prowess. While Zero was well known for repeatedly engaging in the frontlines, his skill and performance from eight years ago had been described as below average at best; in fact, several jokes had been tossed around the Imperial Army regarding his battle record before he captured the Gawain, and even in that unit he had been unable to fight well as Princess Cornelia had proved. Now however, despite spending nearly a decade in captivity, Zero had somehow gained actual fighting skill, enough to hold his own against Suzaku at Pearl Harbor as well as against Johann now. And no matter how many possible explanations Johann ran through his head, he could not find one that was even remotely possible.

However, as evidenced when the Artorius ceased its gunnery attack and closed in, attempting to slash at the Dinadan with its swords, that was something to analyze back Luoyang. Not during the current battle.

Once more putting power into the Dinadan's landspinners, Johann brought his knightmare back into the distance. For all of Zero's newfound skills, the Knight of Two remained one of the best devicers in existence, and as such, his opponent could only remain on the defensive during the Knight of Two's next attack. Speeding across the ground in a semi-circle, Johann fired his hadron launcher in a continuous beam, forcing the black knightmare into evasion while gradually drawing in, leaving less maneuvering room for his opponent.

As he attacked however, something in Johann's side monitor caught his attention. Though he was almost entirely concentrated on his adversary in front of him, the image, which depicted the seemingly endless wilderness of Xiaopei, stuck out in his peripheral vision just enough. And from that image, a feeling of recognition entered into Johann's mind.

Could it be? Johann thought as he pressed his attack, then being forced to evade himself as the Artorius drew in and slashed at him, nearly cutting down his hadron launcher. He almost wanted to dismiss that answer; it seemed far too easy for what he had been expecting, especially from an opponent like Zero. And yet all the same, his instincts told him there was something there.

Rather than resume his attack, Johann turned it around, toward the direction that the joint Black Knight-Chinese formation was moving in. The Artorius naturally pursued, firing its VARIS in rapid succession as it did, but again Johann had no trouble maneuvering around the shots. By now the suspected point that his adversaries were moving towards was in the center of his monitor, and while Johann's eyes alone could not pick up on anything unordinary, the Dinadan's Druid System easily detected what he was seeking and displayed it across the Knight of Two's tacscreen.

From that, Johann learned all that he needed to know. "So that's your move to check, Zero," he murmured as he, at last, redrew his daggers and clashed against the Artorius' swords. All the while discreetly passing commands back to his flagship.

Black Knights mobile battleship Mikasa
Duchy of Jiangsu, Area 22 (China), Holy Britannian Empire
July 6, 2025

"Stern armor is redlining!" Futaba called out in warning, just as the Mikasa again shook from a concentrated HV barrage. "If this keeps up, we'll lose stern coverage!"

"Maintain course and speed! Concentrate your fire on the nearest enemy ships!" Minami maintained as he held the arms of his chair against the vibrations. He was worried now; his ship was taking a serious pounding from the Britannian land fleet, and yet she couldn't maneuver lest she leave the Long Dans vulnerable. And as powerful as the Mikasa's armor was, Minami knew she wouldn't hold out forever from the beating she was taking.

The Colonel sneered as additional shells impacted into his ship's stern quarter, causing it to quake around him. Like it or not, they needed the Britannians to follow them through Waypoint Alfa, which meant they also needed the Britannians to remain in a tight formation and holding pursuit. And though Minami was tempted, he knew that turning his ship around to broadside would only cause the Britannian landships to scatter.

"Approaching Waypoint Alfa," Jones announced as he kept his own hands glued to his station, struggling to hold the ship on course. "Approximately one minute and thirty seven seconds out."

At that, Minami's eyes, as well as Ohgi's, looked toward the bridge viewports, where the expanse of Jiangsu's wastes laid for all to see. Though neither they nor those around them could see it from the dilapidated earth, they all knew that was where Zero's trap had been set, waiting to spring once the Britannians crossed into it. As such, a new element of anxiety began to make its way across the bridge crew as the Mikasa and those she was escorting closed ever further on the threshold.

"God in Heaven I hope this works," Valkenburgh muttered from beside Minami. And the battleship captain knew that was not profanity.

"Fifty-three seconds until entry," Jones announced again, further adding to the tenseness of the moment. "Thirty-nine seconds."

Ohgi took in a long drawn breath. Though the landscape remained pure wasteland, he could almost see the imaginary boundary lines grow even closer to him. Even the continuous shaking barely registered to him now.

"Fifteen seconds." Jones continued. "Ten seconds. Nine, eight..."

Just a little more, Minami thought, now patting the armrest of his chair. A little more, baby...

"...two, one. We've now entered Waypoint Alfa." Jones reported. "Approximately five minutes and twenty-seven seconds before southeast boundary."

Minami nodded. The drawn out part of the battle was over; now they and their slothful allies just had to reach the other end of the field to salvation. All the while stringing the Britannians into the epicenter. "Continue heading! Standby to increase speed!"

Finally. Lelouch thought as he saw the taskforce enter Waypoint Alfa over his mask's HMDS. With that event, the first phase was now complete, and the remaining phases would not take long. The trap was nearly ready to spring.

Twisting away just as the Dinadan launched another hadron shot, Lelouch took off toward the taskforce at the Artorius' full speed. The Dinadan naturally pursued, but Lelouch had intended that; if he could draw Johann into the trap, then his victory was assured. While continually evading hadron fire from his pursuer, as well as cutting down any enemy knightmare that dared stand in his way, he maintained his vector toward the Long Dans, which were now making their way through the center of Waypoint Alfa while the Mikasa retained its position behind them. By now the Chinese landships were almost completely covered with scorch marks and hull breaches, while the Artorius' sensors showed the Mikasa's aft armor was nearly diminished. From this, Lelouch saw he didn't have long to close the box.

Still maintaining his course and evasions, Lelouch then had one of his cockpit's compartments open, revealing his black and gold scepter shaped triggering unit. While Lelouch knew it would have been more efficient to simply let someone from the Mikasa pull the string, as it were, he personally wanted to bring down the Owl of Britannia. That being said, he didn't grasp the trigger just yet; beside the fact he was still in combat, the Britannian landships were not yet in position.

And then the Dinadan was on him again, redrawing its daggers and surging at the black and gold knight. At that, the Artorius quickly deflected the initial strike with its Blaze Luminou and then blocked the follow up with its right sword. He then countered by executing a few slashes of his own, and then following that up with his left arm harken, but the Dinadan easily ducked away from the latter and drew back into the distance, firing another spray of hadron shots that forced Lelouch to reengage his shield.

Through the explosions however, Lelouch still held his eye over the enemy force, which continued to drive after the taskforce with impressive speed. By now, they were only minutes away from Waypoint Alfa's outer boundary. Just a little more, and...

"'...the trap will be sprung.'" Johann's voice finished for him over the radio, causing Lelouch to recoil in shock. From that, a cold surge suddenly swept over the rogue prince as he realized what that meant. "That is what you are thinking now, isn't it?"

Remaining defiant, Lelouch glared back toward the Dinadan's eye cameras. "Quite possibly, Sir Ernst," he replied, hoping against hope the Knight of Two was only probing. "Perhaps it is in your best interest to surrender. Before your forces suffer a similar fate to Calares'."

Johann sniffed at that, as if put off by Zero's display. "I doubt that will occur. Calares, blinded by his own self-assurances, ran his army well into Li's artillery and sandpits," he said, just as he gazed square into the orb of Zero's mask. "I, on the other hand, have absolutely no intention of running mine into your Gefjun Disturber field."

All at once, Lelouch felt his world fall out from under him. Eyes widening from shock and the air rush out of his lungs, he could not keep himself from eliciting a sharp gasp at the Knight of Two's declaration. And though he retained his mask, he had little doubt Johann had again picked up on his astonishment.

Johann pressed further. "Before your intervention, your flagship launched a number of Gefjun equipped missiles, arrayed them into a net formation over a specific area and then had them buried deep into the ground for camouflage," he maintained his gaze into Zero's mask. "From there, you intended to use your taskforce as bait to lure my fleet into the field, from which the disturbers would trigger and immobilize everything, allowing your escape."

The Knight of Two didn't wait for his opponent's response. He knew he was correct. "A rather basic strategy considering your past exploits Zero, but nonetheless an effective one," he continued, reassuming the same critiquing look he had previously given General Li. "Had I been as blind as Calares, it would have no doubt rendered my present forces incapable of further pursuit, and if I myself had been caught in the trap, I would have been unable to summon additional forces to intercept and much more been completely defenseless. Indeed, you had thought this out well."

Astonishment quickly giving way to anger, Lelouch gritted his teeth. "What gave it away?" he asked disdainfully.

Yet again the barest traces of a smirk soon entered Johann's lips. "It was how you prepared your trap: burying Gefjun Disturbers underground over a wide area," Johann explained. "Our Prince Lelouch used a similar strategy in the Sahara, only with high explosives instead of Gefjuns."

A sharp cringe emerged on Lelouch's face at that. During the Algerian campaign, he had staged a false attack upon the town of Adrar and then had his forces withdraw west with the defending 305th Panzer Battalion in pursuit. From there, he lured the battalion deep into the Sahara, eventually leading them to the explosive riddled field that Johann had just mentioned. Needless to say, the Battle of Andrar with the 305th completely wiped out (both from the trap and from the follow up incursion) and Lelouch gaining a forward base within the virtual center of Algeria, which would become Area 39 only a few weeks later.

Naturally, Lelouch wanted to bang his head against the side of the Artorius' cockpit for forgetting that battle. And again underestimating Johann's attention to detail.

"And if memory serves, you yourself used this strategy before," Johann went on, looking up in minor thought. "Specifically during the Battle of Shikine Island. You lured Suzaku into a similar trap, albeit one of much smaller scale."

Despite the impact of Johann's words, Lelouch maintained his defiance. "So what?" he retorted, this time holding no pleasantness whatsoever. "I can easily have my flagship launch additional missiles and increase the field, ensnaring your forces here and now," he threatened, even though he knew such a tactic would more likely fail as the landships could simply shoot down the missiles. Regardless, he was not about to show his back to Johann. "Or I could simply obliterate your forces altogether with a concentrated attack."

Johann shook his head, seemingly ashamed of his opponent's display. "Now you are speaking empty threats, Zero. In itself meaning you are effectively cornered," he spoke with minute offense. "I had thought much better of you."

Lelouch opened his mouth to reply, but was interrupted when his sensors beeped in warning. Following that, a new window appeared in his HMDS, showing the forward Britannian forces suddenly pulling away from the Long Dans.

"And as well as you have planned out and executed your strategy, you still overlooked one critical flaw in its design," Johann continued, raising his right hand up with his fingers crossed together, a clear imitation of Lelouch's opening action. "In order to convincingly lead the enemy into your trap, you must inevitably move your forces through its center."

Lelouch, immediately realizing the truth behind Johann's words, could only look on in alarm. No!

The Knight of Two snapped his fingers.

Seemingly upon that action, the battleship Firestorm began generating a certain signal from its transceiver, seemingly aimed with laser-like focus toward an equally certain area of the desert; specifically an area marked by a small, barely noticeable hole in the ground. Deep underneath, the Gefjun missile, though initially resistant to the Firestorm's signal, eventually gave way and became active, emitting a distinctive green glow from its base that shined upward and over the surface above in a disc shaped form. And what initially began as one light soon erupted into numerous lights across the desert, as, in reaction to the first, the other missiles engaged the Gefjun warheads.

The result was as catastrophic as it was immediate, much to Lelouch's horror. Without any sign or warning, the Long Dans and their Gun Ru escorts halted, their electronics and motor systems neutralized, while the few Sanzuniaos that had somehow survived to this point found themselves without propulsion nor control, resulting in their falling out of the sky. Frantic cries in Mandarin began filling into the comm. lines while the Black Knight operators attempted to instill order. And with their targets largely immobilized, the Britannians pressed forward for the kill, even as the Mikasa and the Black Knights, entirely immune to the effects of Gefjun Disturbers, reformed their lines for defense.

That bastard...! Lelouch's mind cried out as it reeled from the turn of events. For perhaps the first time since Suzaku cornered him at Narita, the man who proclaimed his will to destroy Britannia felt completely powerless. He used an overriding signal to forcibly activate one of the missiles, causing the others to engage in response and prematurely form the Gefjun Field! he thought in pure disbelief, his hands shaking around the Artorius' control sticks. He used my own tactic against me!

"The game has now changed Zero," Johann stated, bluntly and dominantly, seemingly aware of his opponent's newfound despair. "Though your Black Knights remain active, those you are attempting to save are now completely immobilized. And so long as you intend fighting for them, your force will be tied down against my own, which retains superior numbers. All the while I remain capable of summoning reinforcements from any direction."

The Knight of Two then fixed his opponent a forceful gaze. "Therefore, you now hold two options: you may either retreat and abandon your charges, or you may surrender now," he then added for irony. "Before your forces suffer a similar fate to those lost in the Devastation."

Amidst the surge of emotions Lelouch felt at that time, his ears were keen enough to pick up the first option: that Johann didn't care whether the Black Knights retreated or surrendered, meaning his focus was indeed on the CLA. Or more precisely, something within the CLA.

"What say you, Demon King?" the Knight of Two finished.

At that ultimatum, and the humiliation he felt churning within, Lelouch could only glower with rage. "I say this, Owl of Britannia..." he replied, bringing both MVS back to his sides. "It's not over yet!"

With no more words to be said, the Artorius charged forward once more, bringing its swords down upon the Dinadan daggers once again. All the while Lelouch's mind reeled in desperation, attempting to find a new means to salvation.

"Damn you Zero!" Li bellowed with great fury. All at once things had gone from bad to worse; not only had Zero's trap failed, but the Knight of Two had outright turned it against him, preemptively activating the Gefjun Disturbers to neutralize the near entirety of the CLA forces. Now they were trapped in the middle of a large electromagnetic field with the Britannians advancing, and all Li had to defend his comrades was one airship and a small collection of knightmares.

And as his gazed over the immobilized Long Dans and Gun Rus while his ears picked upon the numerous cries of their occupants, an entirely different yet very familiar set of words began to echo within Li's mind, ringing over all else like the tolls of a funeral bell. For all of your gifts and skill Zero, I find you to be a menace, both to your enemies and your own troops. Your tactics have been effective but highly reckless, at times needlessly endangering your own forces, while your inability to adapt to the tide of battle has resulted in many losses. As such, I believe that any strategy you create would be a double edged sword, one that will either give complete victory or irreparable losses.

The Chinese general clenched his teeth subconsciously, trying to force the memories back. It was the cruelest form of irony. He had spoken those words just days ago, and much more, he had known that, in spite of all the assurances that had been given, they were the ultimate, undeniable truth behind Zero and his exploits. And now here he was, having seen that truth come to pass; the very "miracle" that had been meant to liberate him and his army had instead become damnation, resulting in the CLA forces being left open and vulnerable, all the while Zero's inability to adapt or even foresee had left him without a proper fall back strategy. The double edged sword had been swung at the Britannians, but it had struck the Chinese.

How could it come to this!? Li's mind continued to rage as he looked out toward the enemy armada. With their prey now firmly ensnared, the Britannian landships broke formation and divided into two groups, moving in opposite directions over the outer boundaries of the field to form an encirclement. Hyper-velocity shots continued to rain down over the Long Dans, as well as into the midst of the knightmare and armor formations, none of which had any means to evade; explosions rippled across the Chinese landships while entire masses of Gun Rus and support vehicles were obliterated with each shot. And though the Black Knights rallied, complete with the Mikasa turning around to unleash the bulk of her weapons, they remained too small in number to dissuade the Britannians, let alone adequately defend their allies.

As such, there was only one option for Li to follow now. "Black Knights, this is Shangdi One!" he called out over the comm. "I am taking command of the field!"

All at once the chatter intensified, while another channel quickly opened. "Shangdi One, this is General Ohgi," Ohgi called out from the Mikasa, sounding far less than pleased at having the CLA general take charge. "With respect to our alliance, you have no authority to...!"

"Wrong General. I have every authority!" Li shouted back as he made his charge toward the enemy fleet, the Shen Wu right beside him. "Your gambit has failed and your leaders are held up by enemy units! As such, it falls to me, the most senior officer in the field and apparently the only one with a plan, to take command and salvage what's left!"

The sound and flash of an explosion erupting from the landship Hong Mo's starboard side only emphasized Li's words further. "Unless any of you feel you would do better!?" he called out, both in challenge and desperation.

Silence was the only initial response, as half-expected. Not long after that however, the Mikasa established a datalink to the Shen Hu, providing Li the exact specifications of the Black Knights' forces. Li immediately set to work.

"Mikasa, 1st and 2nd Squadrons, engage the landships! 3rd through 6th, focus on the enemy knightmares! Zero Squadron and Tianshou Two, you're with me; we will be the main thrust with our energy weapons!" the general commanded, purposely speaking fast so none of the Black Knight pilots could interrupt him.

Then, putting more speed into the Shen Hu's landspinners, he shouted. "Advance!"

Having no other options and facing the most desperate situation since the Black Rebellion, the Black Knights fell in line, the numerous black Akatsukis launching off toward the armada while the Mikasa trailed behind them, her HV cannons firing in succession. Alongside, the red Gurens of Zero Squadron arrayed themselves around him and the Shen Wu, forming a perfect V formation. That being said however, Li did not miss the Guren nearest to him bringing its surger toward him, with its central talon extended over the other two.

Gritting his teeth together, Li let loose another blast from his baryon cannon. The beam instantly shot across the air and lanced through the Britannian warship line, striking and ripping apart a Formidable-class land battleship, all the while two Resolute-class cruisers fell to the Mikasa's bow cannons. As expected, the Britannians responded in kind, with several ships redirecting their fire away from the stricken Chinese forces over to the charging Black Knights, while the Britannian knightmares moved into intercept. Even so, the armada continued to move into encirclement.

"Keep those ships held down!" Li called out to his allies while simultaneously engaging his Sheng Biaos into full rotation, allowing him to cut through the line of Sutherlands that had moved to intercept him. Beside him, Hei also put his harkens into rotation to support his superior, while the Gurens wasted no effort in utilizing their fork knives, or the Gloucester lance that Rei Two was fighting with. "Don't let them complete their encirclement!"

"We're working on it Shangdi One!" one of the Black Knight units, which Li thought was 1st Squadron's commander, shouted from the background. Regardless, the Black Knights continued the offensive, with the Mikasa advancing at top speed, her massive HV cannons firing upon every Britannian ship it came across, while bazooka equipped Akatsukis fell upon whatever ships they could reach. Several more Britannian landships were destroyed as a result.

And then Li and his own clandestine unit fell into place. Slipping past the defending knightmares, Li's group was now over the very center of the armada, with a line of warships laid out in front of them. Immediately upon gaining a target lock, Li fired his partially charged baryon cannon upon the center most Formidable, taking out its forward hull in one go, while the Shen Wu quickly threw up an enlarged baryon shield to deflect the return fire. Taking their cue, the eleven Gurens all launched forward, launching at the stricken Britannian warship and firing their surgers at multiple areas of the hull. The result caused the blue land battleship to detonate from multiple angles and explode into raining shards, not unlike a New Years fireworks display.

Not even waiting for the glare of the Formidable's death died down, Li twisted around and lashed his right slash harken at another Sutherland, which had been attempting to move behind and strike with its tonfas. From there, he put the Shen Hu into a spin and knocked the knightmare against one of its comrades, only then sending an electrical current into the first causing both to detonate. After that, Li brandished his jian and launched his way through several more Sutherlands, with the Shen Wu and Gurens struggling to keep up with him. As he did this, several Akatsukis fell in to provide support, clearing the way for Li and his supporters to the next line of Britannian ships.

Now that his path was clear again, Li brought the Shen Hu to another firing position, where he redeployed and fired the baryon cannon. The golden beam instantly lanced through another landship, Resolute-class land destroyer, blasting it straight through the middle and causing it to explode. However, Li kept the beam firing for just a few minutes longer, so that he could sweep it across another Resolute, where it broke its forward armor and obliterated its bow. Smoke and fire now billowing from its broken nose, the Resolute halted in its tracks, fire spreading across its hull like a plague. From there, he Li closed his baryon cannon and redeployed his slash harkens, flailing through another Sutherland unit while the Shen Wu moved to support with its guan dao.

And yet, in spite of his successful attacks, Li knew the inevitable truth: even with the Black Knights backing him up, he could not hold the line. Yes, he had destroyed three Britannian landships in a matter of minutes, but there were far more out there, and they were all proceeding with the encirclement with little abandon. The same went for the knightmares, which remained abundantly numbered, even as the Black Knights continued to cut them down at every point. In a matter of minutes, the encirclement would be complete and the Britannians would be free to reign hellfire upon the immobilized CLA forces from every direction.

That forecast became even more apparent as several more rounds struck the Hong Mo, ripping through the cruiser with great force. And then, at long last, Li could only watch in despair as the landship fell to the barrage, exploding in a great thunderclap that rippled across the battlefield while raining shards all over the remaining Chinese forces.

Damn it! Li's mind called out despairingly as he watched the Hong Mo's explosion die down, all the while he slashed another pair of Sutherlands with his jians. It can't end like this...!

"How...How could this be...?" Kallen let out in complete disbelief as she watched the scene unfold before her, feeling as though Fate itself had sided with the Britannians. Eight years ago, she had believed such an event was impossible; that the mere notion was completely against reality, such that the only way it could occur was that if the one she believed in allowed it to happen. And yet there it was; for the first time she had ever seen, Lelouch had been outmaneuvered, and to the worst degree possible, by an opponent he himself had claimed to be of equal intellect. As well as the only other player beside Schneizel to beat him at his favorite game.

"Damn it, I knew Zero was full of shit!" Yin bellowed, feeling the despair weigh upon her with every passing minute. It was bad enough that the Knight of Two had outmaneuvered General Li's trap through a cheaply designed probing attack, but now he had beaten the hell out of the one that was supposed to save them here? No less the same man that had, only days earlier, proclaimed his intention to liberate all of China from its oppressors.

Slashing her whips about triumphantly, Nena let out a taunting laugh at her two opponents, thoroughly enjoying their shock. "Hehehehe, it won't be long now!" she called out to both the Guren Nishiki and the Shen Long, lashing out her whips again, which the two enemy knightmares proceeded to deflect and evade. "This battle was decided the moment Johann entered it!"

"Like hell! There's no way General Li will go down that easily!" Yin shot back as she slashed at the Safir with her shuang gous, only for the Safir to duck underneath her slash and launch a counterattack with its trailing whip. This forced the Chinese fighter back on the defensive, all the while the Guren charged in and launched a grenade at the Britannian ace, only for it to be split in half by another well placed whip attack.

"Please," Nena continued to taunt as she lashed back at either opponent. "Your General Li couldn't even tell Calares was just a frontman! He's nothing compared to Johann!" she howled as she slashed at the Shen Long, which quickly launched its right slash harken and put it into immediate rotation, deflecting the attack with its "shield". However, Nena compensated by having the Safir flit around to the Chinese knightmare's left side, where she delivered a Blaze Luminous empowered tackling attack that sent the crimson knightmare streaking across the sky. "The Tiger's claws may rend mortals' flesh, but they can never reach the flying Owl!"

No sooner than she finished that line was Nena forced to move, just barely evading the Guren Nishiki's radiant wave shot. "Yet even Owls cannot fly where Dragons tread!" she shouted with virulence as she charged, attempting to grasp the Safir with her claw. When that failed, she turned to her left arm and let off three more grenades. "And none may hold power against the Demon King!"

This earned another haunting laugh from the Knight of Eight as she swatted the grenades out of the air. "Who knew the Red Dragoness had a poetic streak to her?" she called out as the Guren charged forward and slashed at her with its fork knife, only for the Safir to dive back and evade, again using her trailing whips to mount a counterattack. "But all the same, you've still lost! Even that masked bastard cannot stand against Johann!"

"He's not finished yet!" Kallen defiantly responded as she deflected the whips, one with her fork knife and the other with her radiant wave shield, before diving after the Round unit. "And neither am I!"

She then launched another radiant wave stream, only for the Safir to enter into a spin and literally sweep away the blast with its whips. "Oh but you are finished, dragon bitch!" Nena cruelly espoused in the midst of her deflection, before twisting around and lashing out with both whips toward the Guren. "Both you and your boss are done like Christmas dinner! You're just in the process of figuring it out!"

"I'll be the judge of that Britannian!" Kallen replied as she banked the Guren around the whips, at one point even being forced to deflect one of the lashes with a surger generated radiant wave shield. Even so, she still managed to close the gap between her and the Safir, from which she brought her fork knife down over the torso, only for it to be deflected by a timely Blaze Luminous generation. She then brought her surger back around and attempted yet again to grasp the Safir, but the Britannian knightmare responded by deploying its opposite arm mounted Blaze Luminous, causing the radiant wave energy to be deflected around it in a flat disc.

That's when Kallen performed a move that Nena didn't expect. While continuing to generate energy from the surger, Kallen slowly forced the Safir's left arm upward, from which she put one last burst of strength into it at the last possible second to throw it upward. From there, the Safir's torso was at last exposed, allowing Kallen to deliver a hardened kick against it and send the Britannian knightmare back several meters. And before Nena could recover herself, Kallen launched her chest mounted slash harken and latched it onto the Safir's head.

"What the hell!?" Nena blurted out in a dazed state as Kallen began to retract the slash harken, dragging the Safir directly toward her waiting, and open, surger claw. And it was at such a speed that the dazed Nena could not hope to react in time.

And then all of a sudden, Kallen watched as the world around her slow to a crawl horror. Oh no, not now! she thought in horror, her last act of coherence before being absorbed by the tide. The Safir continued to be retracted toward her, but now it was taking an immeasurably long time. And try as she might to react, Kallen found her body too sluggish to move as she wanted, and with it the Guren itself.

Nena didn't know what was happening, but she was quick to take advantage of the now open and vulnerable Guren. Bringing her own knightmare up and around, she allowed the slash harken to continue retracting, so that she could perform a shoulder barge against the immobilized Black Knight unit and knock it back, effectively reversing their earlier positions. Then, realizing that the Guren had yet to recover, Nena, now emitting a triumphant smile, shot after it, snapping her whips forward to lash the legendary Black Knight unit into fourths.

Before the whips could connect however, the Shen Long made its presence known once again. Having activated its Long Xin system, the now golden knightmare dove directly between the attacking Britannian knightmare and its would be victim in a flurry of afterimages, where it knocked away the whips with its shuang gous and then countering by firing its own right arm slash harken back at the Safir. Once the Round unit deflected the attack, Yin charged forward and brought both hookswords down upon the Safir's shields.

"What the fuck are you doing!?" Kallen heard the Tianshou scream at her just as her senses reverted back to normal. "Are you trying to get yourself killed!?"

No immediate response came as Kallen reeled over what had just happened. Breathing heavily now, eyes blurry as tears threatened to form, the Guren pilot could almost feel the fear and anxiety wash over her like a tidal wave, threatening to drown her through her recent experience. It had been the first time that a near-runaway had occurred while she was in combat. What would have happened if...

"Hello, little miss fake dragoness!" Yin called out again, just as she pulled the Shen Long back and began to flank the Safir, throwing a ring of afterimages up as she went. "Did you fucking die in there, or did the Round bitch knock down your goddamn skull!?"

Despite the crassness of the outburst, it was enough to snap Kallen back into the moment. As frightened as she was on the inside, there was still a losing battle to wage over. Thus, letting out a battle cry, Kallen put the Guren into another charge, claw extended toward the Safir.

Tohdoh grimaced as the Caius brought down both broadswords against seidotou, forcing him to employ his swords rocket thrusters just to keep from being driven back. As that occurred, the Shen Que came up from behind the Zangetsu with its dadao raised, ready to deliver an overhead chop that would have split the Britannian knightmare's head in two. Unfortunately Michael saw it coming and blasted back, launching his slash harkens to dissuade the Shen Que from proceeding further, all the while the Zangetsu drove forward.

"I have to admit Ki-yo-shi-ro, I'm impressed!" Michael taunted as the Zangetsu moved to impale with its seidotou, only for the sword to be knocked away. However, Tohdoh recovered quickly and reengaged the blade's rockets to perform a rising slash, which Michael was just barely able to evade. Michael then countered by firing off his flash cannon again, but Tohdoh had seen the move coming and managed to bank away before being blinded. "When Johann pulled that switch and literally stopped the Chinese in their tracks, I was really afraid you and your Black Knights would end up folding like a card table!"

Tohdoh's response was to redeploy his machine cannons and fire another burst, this time aiming toward the Caius' head; if nothing else, the warshots could potentially take out the Britannian unit's main camera. Michael merely responded by raising his Blaze Luminous shields to deflect. "But damn are you still fighting!" he howled as he charged forward through the barrage, bringing his broadswords against the seidotou once again. "You Black Knights are either total idiots or real badasses!"

"I'll take the latter as a compliment," Tohdoh dryly replied as he pulled back the stick and had the Zangetsu perform a backflip, using the rocket thrusters again for increased momentum. When the Caius naturally shot forward, Tohdoh then leaped upward again and moved into a lateral spin, allowing him to evade the charging orange knightmare and move into a position to strike the cockpit block. However, Michael was just fast enough to throw one of his broadswords over his shoulder and deflect the blow. At that, Tohdoh landed again and brought the seidotou around once more, only for the Caius to deflect. "And in spite of what you think Britannian, this battle is not over!"

"Hah! That's what you think Eleven!" Michael shouted back as he threw the sword aside and spun around to slash with his opposite sword, only for the Zangetsu to evade. "I'm not nearly as smart as Johann, but I know when a fight is won! And this one is completely ours!"

"The hell it is!" Bai shouted defiantly as he charged back into the scene, harken spinning in full revolution. Bring down the flail against the Caius left broadsword, Bai forced the orange knightmare down while the Zangetsu returned and brought its seidotou against the right broadsword. "We Chinese have a bad habit of not accepting defeat so easily!"

"So I can tell," Michael nodded approvingly, as he forced back the Zangetsu's blade and then knocked away the Shen Que's flail, right before executing another flash cannon shot. Again, both enemy pilots were used to the tactic now and had so managed to evade before they could be blinded, but the Knight of Five didn't care. "Unfortunately for you however, there's a clear difference between certain victory and continued resistance."

He then launched himself back at the Shen Que, which barely managed to raise its dadao to deflect. "Continued resistance doesn't mean you can still win!" Michael hollered fanatically as he wailed against the dadao with either broadsword, attempting to break through the Tianshou's defense with continuous hammer blows. And though Bai continued to hold the line, he could not deny that the power behind the Knight of Five's blows held great effect. "It's just your delaying the inevitable!"

Michael then added with stinging emphasis. "Just like you've been doing for the last seven years!"

That one struck home, as Bai felt himself bowl over with rage. "Shut up!" he called out as he executed a counter-slash. Unfortunately, that was exactly what Michael had been counting on, as he immediately dodged back and then brought his right broadsword around, cleaving the Shen Que's remaining limb from its body. He then proceeded to kick the Shen Que back and move to deliver the final blow, but at the last minute the Zangetsu charged in and deflected the initial blow, thereby allowing Tohdoh to knock away the second.

Seeing the now disarmed Shen Que hover off to the side, Michael couldn't help but let out erupting laughter. "'Tis but a scratch!'" he called out in a comedic Britannian accent as knocked back the Zangetsu and moved to finish the Chinese knightmare off again, only for the Black Knight unit to re-intercept.

Then the Chinese pilot did something neither he nor Tohdoh expected; letting out a resolute battle cry, he put the Shen Que into full charge and executed a flying kick from overhead, which Michael narrowly evaded by breaking away from the Zangetsu and pulling back. And even then, the Shen Que continued to attack, executing an additional number of kicks at different angles around the Caius' body while the Zangetsu, its pilot still bewildered by his Chinese ally's course of action, followed up with its seidotou, forcing Michael to keep evading and counterattacking.

At last, Michael got to the point where he reached up and grasped upon the Shen Que's extended leg, holding it in place. "'Look you stupid bastard, you've got no arms left!'" he continued quoting in his mock accent while holding the Chinese knightmare in place. "'What are you going to do, bleed on me!?'"

"Qu si!" Bai shouted the Mandarin equivalent of 'go to hell' as he, while his adversary still held him, spun the Shen Que around and brought its opposite leg against the Caius' head, causing it to snap with a metallic thud. The force was enough to cause the Caius to finally release him, from which Bai proceeded with his offensive. "If we Tianshou were so weak as to rely entirely on weapons, we would be unworthy of our service to General Li!"

Anger materializing over Michael's face like a burst of thunder. "No no no no no NO NO NO!" he rambled as he viciously slashed back with his broadswords. "The correct line, you Twenty-Two shit-piler, is 'just a flesh wound'!" he shouted as he viciously slashed back with his broadswords. Only Bai's maneuvering kept Michael from scoring any direct hits, but the Britannian pilot grew closer with every slash regardless. "Don't you Twenty-Twos know proper comedy when you hear it!?"

It was then Tohdoh made himself known again as he came up from the Cauis' left side and cut a massive gash into its shoulder. "Your taste in 'comedy' is as disgusting as your attempts at wit, fledgling," Tohdoh bluntly stated as he stepped up his attack. Unlike Bai, he knew of the movie Michael was referring to, and he considered its existence, alongside that of the group who made it, as one of the most heinous crimes Britannia had ever inflicted.

Michael spat at that. "Uncultured barbarians the lot of you!" he shouted back as he stepped up his offensive, repeatedly striking at the Zangetsu and the Shen Que, who responded in kind with their own attacks. It was all the Japanese and Chinese fighters could do to keep the Round held down, but it still worked toward their shared objective. Behind them some distance away, the main battle continued to wage with the Black Knights holding the tide against the Britannians, while the helpless CLA forces could only hope and pray in their disabled machines.

Eventually the fight came to a head. After evading another rocket assisted slash from the Zangetsu and a follow up spin kick from the Shen Que, the Caius spun back some distance, so that Michael could face down his two opponents yet again. There the three hovered, their respective camera eyes glaring at the other, reflecting upon their pilots' own gazes. It was only then that Tohdoh, breathing heavily in his cockpit, noticed the trickle of blood streaming from his lip; apparently he had bit into it at one point during the fight. Wiping it off with his left hand, he readied his seidotou again, awaiting the Caius' next charge.

And that's when the sensors of all three knightmares started beeping, alerting the three warriors. When Tohdoh turned to look at the display, his eyes widened in near despair. "What...what is this?" he involuntarily muttered, suddenly feeling his blood run cold.

"So they showed up after all," Michael quipped as he looked over his sensor readings as well, sounding almost disappointed. "Shame, I was really hoping we could keep this battle up for a bit longer."

"Where the hell did they come from!?" Bai horrifyingly let out, now feeling as though a hand had just wrapped around his heart. Forwardly displayed on the Shen Que's sensor panel were two masses of blue signals closing in; two new formations of enemy forces now entering into range.

Turning the Zangetsu's head to the southwest, and then northwest, Tohdoh indeed saw what his sensors had told him; two whole armadas of Britannian land and airships, accompanied by a sizeable number of knightmares, gunships and fighters. Moving in like approaching storm clouds, they drew ever closer to the immobilized CLA formation, which laid open before them as the Black Knights remained concentrated in fighting the Britannians to the east. And though they fought valiantly, Tohdoh knew all too well that his contingent did not have the numbers counter them.

Seeing the despair of his opponents firsthand, Michael espoused a victorious grin. "That's right, you understand now," he said, his voice taking on a far more sinister tone now. "As bad as we had you in your little base, Johann had a feeling that you Twenty-Twos would attempt to cut and run. As such, he had two divisions set on standby in Taiyuan and Wuhan, ready to deploy the moment you guys tried to break out," his grin grew ever bigger. "We had you bastards since the very beginning."

Tohdoh felt himself glower at the Knight of Five's words. In their rush to support the CLA, the Black Knights had either forgotten or dismissed one key detail: the Britannians controlled the whole of China, and so could deploy their forces from virtually any part of the former nation. They might as well had been trying to liberate the Chinese from within the Imperial Homeland.

The Caius' head then turned to look toward the Zangetsu. "So how about it Ki-yo-shi-ro. Still think this battle can still be won?" he taunted. "Think your single battleship and few dozen knightmares can hold against three divisions?"

Michael then drove the point home. "Or are you finally going to raise that white flag, like all of Japan did after old man Kururugi had his iron injection?"

This time, Tohdoh had no more words for the Knight of Five. The uncertain, yet still defiant glare he gave off toward his central monitor, where the Caius remained standing before him, said all that he was unwilling to.

"And with this Zero, I declare check," Johann stated as the two divisions moved into visual range, the land and airships at the spearhead of either formation now close enough for detailed view. "All of my pieces are now set in place, and you are in no position to resist much further."

Lelouch could only look on in horror as he, through a tacscreen display in his mask's visor, watched the airships draw further toward the immobile CLA formation. Indeed it was check, perhaps even the Owl of Britannia's masterstroke. The newcomer forces were perfectly positioned to attack in a pincer movement, while the additional HV weapons ensured that any finishing attack would only last in seconds. Even if the Chinese battle group could move, their only escape route was now completely cut off, and Lelouch's immediate forces, as powerful as they were, could not hope to even open up a hole within the Britannian ranks, let alone take on all three forces at the same time. Thus, all that remained was surrender and the Chinese's complete annihilation.

And as Lelouch's sensors indicated, it didn't end there. Despite the valiant effort Li and his forces had made, enough of the initial force's landships had slipped past to complete the encirclement; in fact, going by the first army's movements alongside those of the second and third, Lelouch realized that all three were about to merge together into a maelstrom, a special formation in which warships formed a complete ring around a target area and then proceeded in one direction, effectively revolving around the target while bombarding it. It was one of the first non-oceanic ship maneuvers to be developed, and it had been used effectively several times in the past eight years. And here it was going to be utilized against four stranded landships and withered collection of knightmares and support craft.

I've never been outmaneuvered like this! Lelouch thought despairingly as he continued watching the armies' progress. And try as he might to develop a counter-strategy of some kind, he could come up with nothing beyond a final stand, in which he had the Black Knights destroy as many Britannian units as possible before inevitably being wiped out. Just as Johann said, he could not resist that much further. What a disgrace!

"I repeat myself Zero. You remain holding two options: retreat or surrender," Johann stated over the comm. line, his voice holding utmost seriousness as he presented the ultimatum. If he had picked up on his opponent's emotional state, which remained very much possible, he did not show it. "There are no alternatives, and the time to decide is wearing thin. As well, your refusal to decide will only ensure the destruction of your forces."

Hearing that ultimatum repeated, Lelouch glared back at Johann's digital image. For perhaps the first time in his life, Lelouch was so enraged by his opponent that he wished he could reach across his cockpit monitor and strangle Johann himself. Everything was falling apart around him, and he had failed to so much as wound his opponent. And though Operation Akai Yoake could, would, be carried out regardless of the outcome of this battle, the morale cost would remain high, such that it could affect the outcome of the more important battle to come. All due to the presence of the Knight of Two, a variable that even Lelouch had dismissed early on.

Not all was lost however. In spite of what Johann had said, Lelouch did have one more card to play; a special move he had prepared in Luoyang for the single purpose of eliminating Johann and his fellow Rounds. It was already in place and ready for execution; all Lelouch needed to do was speak the right word and it would be done. And best of all, it was something that Johann, for all of his intellect and foresight, could never have predicted.

Even so, as tempted as Lelouch was to speak the word, he remained hesitant at using it now. That part of the plan was supposed to be reserved for the endgame of Akai Yoake, when Lelouch's main miracle was delivered and the Black Knights and CLA pressed the offensive; it would be the only thing keeping Johann from salvaging the situation and turning it back on the aggressors. If Lelouch used it now, he would not be able to employ it later when it was more needed. And yes, while he did consider the possibility of it taking out Johann and eliminating the main thorn in his side before Akai Yoake, the greater risk remained that the Knight of Two would manage to survive, if not outright cancel out, Lelouch's play during this battle, in which case Lelouch would have wasted his countermove at an inopportune time.

"Retreat or surrender," Johann repeated for emphasis, seemingly unaware of Lelouch's deliberations. "Once more, what say you, Demon King?"

Taking a breath, Lelouch saw that he had no more choices. He had to make his play now and take out Johann; if it succeeded, he just might be able to turn the battle around. As such, he switched his channel to broadband and opened his mouth to speak the single word. It was only then that his sensors beeped in warning as a new line of signals, which were quickly identified as cruise missiles, entered into range.

At first, Lelouch thought the cruise missiles had come from additional Britannian ships or ground installations, and were meant to strike the Mikasa. However, when he saw Johann look over toward his own sensor screen, confusion on his face, he realized that this was not something the Knight of Two had intended. Lelouch soon understood why, as the cruise missiles were not aimed at the Black Knight flagship, but rather at a different set of targets. The gefjun missiles.

Sure enough, the newly arrived cruise missiles streaked into visual range and, once they had reached a certain distance from their targets, turned upward and climbed, then arching downward until they were straight and even. Then, with simultaneous procession, the missiles fell into the holes made by the gefjun missiles and traveled downward, until they struck the gefjuns in one collective chain of destruction. This in turn was signified by rushes of flame exploding upward through the holes, which both the Black Knights and Britannians picked up on.

In one single sweep, the gefjun field dissipated, allowing the remaining CLA forces to reengage their vehicles. The Gun Rus quickly went active and moved into a combined defensive formation around their remaining motherships, which in turn reengaged their own weapons and angled them toward any enemy warships in range. However, the Chinese did not fire just yet; instead, just like the Britannian and Black Knight forces around them, they looked on in confusion for their apparent saviors.

Did Zero plan this too? Johann thought as he had the Dinadan's head look around, looking for the additional enemy ships. However, both his sensors and his eyes found nothing.

For his part, Lelouch could only sit astounded. Is it possible? he thought, himself looking for any sign of friendly IFF. There was only one possibility he could think of for this shift. Could one of the other commanders have realized what was happening here?

The answer to that question soon came in one burst transmission. "Britannian forces, this is General Izanagi Kondo, commander of the Black Knights' Second Army..."

With that announcement, comm. chatter erupted across the now stilled battlefield, with the Black Knights and Chinese responding with renewed hope while the Britannians responded in shock as one of the most prominent Japanese military leaders made himself known to the field.

Even Johann was unable to keep his own astonishment from his eyes. "The Lord of Kyoto...!" he muttered in clear disbelief. "He's still alive!?"

Black Knights mobile cruiser Akagi
Duchy of Jiangsu, Area 22 (China), Holy Britannian Empire
July 6, 2025

Standing tall upon the bridge of his flagship Akagi, General Izanagi Kondo studied the scene before him. And indeed, the scene before him looked quite grim; the Britannian encirclement was just about complete when he had staged his intervention, with only a few ships that had been held back by the Mikasa being out of place. The CLA forces were almost completely wiped out, with two of their landships suffering critical damage, their remaining air units having crashed into the desert floor due to the gefjun field and very few of their tanks and knightmares remaining intact. And though the Mikasa had not taken any serious damage, nor had her knightmare forces been decimated, Zero's personal forces would not have lasted against the coming onslaught.

Thus, Kondo continued his message to the now stunned Britannian forces, his baritone voice projecting each word with great force. "While you were busy fighting our comrades and bombing the remnants of yet another great civilization to pieces, my taskforce has effectively moved within your blind areas and flanked you," Kondo smirked a little at that. The Gefjun Disturber was indeed a marvelous invention, at least when it was properly used. "The gefjun field is down, meaning allied defense is up and running again, and we ourselves have targeting solutions for every single one of your ships."

That wasn't a lie. The Black Knights' Suzuka-class mobile destroyer, several of which were among Kondo's taskforce, was equipped with four fifty-cell missile launchers, a load capacity for several hundred missiles and one of the most advanced targeting/fire control systems ever developed, allowing them to target all present enemy warships. Had they been part of the late Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, they would have been referred to as guided missile destroyers, but Kondo was not one to be hung up on such insignificant details. "This is my first and only warning: the field belongs to us now. Withdraw immediately, and your families may yet hear your voices once more. Continue fighting, and you will find we have more than enough missiles and hyper-velocity shells to turn this wasteland into your graveyard."

Kondo continued. "And no matter what you decide, remember that you can't see us. Yet." The general inwardly smirked as he imagined the Britannians shivering over that. "We will fire the first volley. Consider that before choosing your next course of action. Kondo out."

As the comm. line was terminated, the Akagi's captain, Colonel Gihachi Takayanagi spoke up. "Sir, if I may..."

"Don't say it Gihachi," Kondo replied, knowing what the colonel was going to comment on. In his haste to support Zero, Kondo had only managed to mobilize a few ships for his impromptu taskforce; specifically three Akagi-class cruisers and six Suzuka-class destroyers. Hardly a drop in the bucket compared to the forces the Britannians deployed, which now augmented even further by the arrival of the two additional land fleets. Despite his warning, Kondo knew his ships would hardly make a dent in the Britannian lines if the battle continued, even with the Mikasa's support.

Nervously, Takayanagi then asked. "What do we do if they choose the latter option?"

"That I don't think we need worry about," Kondo replied as he retook seat at the rear of the bridge. "Now that we've provided an opening, Zero will no doubt take advantage of the situation."

With some hesitance, Takayanagi continued. "With all due respect sir, considering the enemy's numbers, that's a rather broad call to make," he said. "Even for Zero."

Kondo chuckled as he pushed up his orange tinted glasses. "There are other ways to defeat the enemy than active combat," the former admiral replied. "In fact, according to a certain Chinese general, the supreme art of war is when you defeat your opponent without fighting altogether."

Takayanagi frowned. "I'm afraid I don't understand."

The general waved to the main monitor. "Then by all means, watch and listen Colonel." he encouraged, himself looking toward the undamaged Da Long Dan in one of the vidwindows, and then to the standoff between the Artorius and Dinadan in another. "Watch as Zero defeats the enemy without firing another shot."

It was almost too good to be true. One minute it seemed as though the Black Knights would be mounting for a last stand to defend their Chinese counterparts, and the next the battlefield had turned to a standstill, the Britannians having halted their advance in the face of an unseen Black Knights fleet; one led by perhaps the most feared and respected Japanese military commander of all time. As far as Lelouch's eye could see, there were Sutherlands and Gloucesters drifting aimlessly along the ground, not far off from their Akatsuki adversaries, while the Britannian ships hovered in place, their crews seemingly afraid to move their vessels even a few meters further. The Mikasa also remained on standby her, her cannons silent for the first time since her entry into the battle.

Taking all that in, Lelouch knew full well what Kondo had just done. Just as he knew whatever happened next depended on him.

"It appears we have a stalemate, Zero," Johann commented as he brought the Dinadan up again to directly face the Artorius. As he did, the Caius and the Safir fell into formation beside him, while the Guren Nishiki and the Zangetsu did the same beside the Artorius. And further in the distance, Lelouch could see the Shen Hu move up just a couple meters away from the group with the Shen Wu beside it, while the Shen Que and Shen Long joined it not long after. "In the face of your reinforcements, I apparently can no longer advance. And though I have my suspicions regarding the number of ships General Kondo has brought with him to support you, the possibility remains that his words are indeed true, in which case I would end up wasting more troops and material than necessary to achieve my objective."

Lelouch wanted to comment if Johann felt that way about the troops that he had manipulated Calares into sacrificing just to breach Xiaopei's defenses; even by his standards that had been a cold move. He held his tongue however, as he didn't have much ground to stand on there himself. "And as you have highlighted on several times Sir Ernst, my forces still cannot evade yours without outright abandoning the Chinese. And even with the additional numbers that General Kondo has provided us, the fact remains both my forces and General Li's would retain heavy damage in the process of fighting you off," he said, looking around toward his own forces, many of whom had taken serious damage over the course of the battle. "Assuming we can actually fight you off."

"Correct," Johann confirmed, having considered such factors himself. "So the question remains: where do we go from here?"

"What the hell Johann!? Since when do you ask the enemy a question like that!?" Michael suddenly sounded off, the Caius head looking toward the Dinadan. "You should be the one dictating the terms of surrender, not him!"

"And we still have our orders from His Majesty!" Nena commented from the other side.

"Agreed Nena, but His Majesty has made it quite clear that those orders are not to be unnecessarily sacrificed for. Nor would I wish it myself," Johann answered. If the Knight of Two held any annoyance over his subordinates questioning him, especially over an open channel, he did not show it. In fact, he seemed to take the matter in stride. "And Michael, this is not surrender, but simple reasoning between two commanders," he explained. "I wish to hear Zero's proposition, before I decide our next move."

You really haven't changed Johann. Lelouch thought as heard the Knight of Two's words, his earlier rage toward the man slowly becoming forgotten. In spite of his earlier disposition, alongside all that had occurred, it was almost refreshing to face a worthy opponent. Lelouch had forgotten how seldom that occurred for him.

"My proposition is simple, Sir Ernst," Lelouch answered, re-earning the Rounds' attention, along with the rest of those present. "Both of our forces are to stand down from combat and retreat peaceably. You will return to Luoyang unmolested, and my forces will continue escorting the remnants of General Li's army to wherever safe haven they may hold. As well, both sides will be allowed to collect their downed pilots and ship crews while departing. Neither side will collect prisoners of war or spoils from the other."

Johann folded his arms in consideration. "A complete withdrawal and no gains for both sides," he summarized, objectively and without apparent emotion. However, there were hints of disappointment within Johann's eyes. "Why should I agree to this, when I just may yet hold the upperhand?"

"Again, you said it yourself Sir Ernst," Lelouch countered, attempting to beat Johann down early on. "You may continue fighting us, but you would be needlessly sacrificing your forces. Forces you will need later on, when the Black Knights and the Chinese Liberation Army at last move to liberate this country."

"For god's sake Johann, just shoot this pompous son of a...!" Michael hollered as he reached back for his broadswords, only to be stopped when the Dinadan raised its hand. This single move instantly halted the Caius' reach as well as silenced its devicer, as Michael knew much better than to cross his superior when told to stop.

That out of the way, Johann continued. "Assuming for a moment that you and the CLA were indeed capable launching such a campaign, would I not be preventing it by killing you or General Li here?" he said, finding amusement in how the Tianshou quickly grew closer to their commander. "After all, if General Li were slain, the CLA would no longer hold any skilled leadership. Same with you and the Black Knights."

"You may try," Lelouch shot back defiantly. He might have been exhausted, but he was far from unable to fight. "But even if you did succeed in killing us, what would you gain for it? The Black Knights would still be out there, as would the CLA," he then pressed further. "A leaderless army is still an army, and in certain scenarios can be even more dangerous. And let's not discount the possibility of other skilled leaders stepping forward; General Li's death could possibly mean the ascension of a more capable officer, while my death would mean General Tohdoh or General Kondo gaining higher command."

Lelouch looked down, a small smirk forming on his lips. "No, as advantageous as you may think it is, wiping out our present forces would not only cost you much in collateral, as well as leave your more vulnerable to the rest of our armies later on, but would also leave the possibility of new leaders rising up to take to our rebellion," he then leaned forward. "Keep in mind that 'Zero' is just a stage name, just as this mask is a costume piece. Any skilled actor can take the role; perhaps not as well as the original, but still enough to ensure that the show does indeed go on."

Johann looked down at his hand at that, as if inspecting it for dust. "Somehow I hold great doubts about that as well Zero," he replied. "Yours is a role that very few, if not the one, can act out so perfectly. And while you may have such skilled commanders as the Lord of Kyoto and the one behind the Miracle of Itsukushima under your sway, the fact remains I would still cost the Black Knights and CLA their driving forces were I to slay you and General Li," the barest semblances of a smirk soon folded on the Knight of Two's face. "Even if it would cost the bulk of my forces to do it."

"Again, you're welcome to try Sir Ernst," Lelouch shot back, feeling as though he were being backed into a corner again. In spite of what he said, he knew Johann had greater reason to continue the battle than to end it; indeed, if Johann did manage to kill him or Li, their vacancies would be much harder, if not impossible, for their subordinates to fill, while their armies would end up in disarray. There was good reason why the King was the most vital, and vulnerable, piece in Chess.

And the worst part was, Lelouch admitted to himself is that he would have proceeded if he were in the Knight of Two's position; best to eliminate a skilled enemy commander when one had the chance, regardless of cost. However, he could not afford to think like that now. He needed to dissuade Johann, and needed a reason or element that was both logical and directly against Johann's motivation. Absentmindedly, he cast a corner glance over the Da Long Dan, which even now remained undamaged.

Then, as his eyes wandered over the hull, something inside his mind clicked together; all of a sudden, he was longer confused and bewildered by Johann's actions toward the Chinese flagship, nor why he seemed so intent on dealing with the Chinese rather than the Black Knights. All at once, realization rushed through his body like a river overflowing a dam, causing Lelouch's eyes to widen reflexively; he now saw a clear picture, something that until this point had eluded him, but now was within his reach and comprehension. And much more, it was something that would undeniably serve to his advantage. "However, I have a strong feeling that was not what you were sent here to accomplish."

"What the fuck are you talking about Zorro?" Michael blasted out, his temperament overruling his superior's commands for the moment. "We just spent most of the day mopping the floor with you Eleven and Twenty-Two pukes...!"

"But that's not your real objective, is it?" Lelouch replied sharply, silencing the Knight of Five yet again. "No, I may not possess the wisdom to know your Emperor's thoughts, but what I do know is that he would not have sent three Rounds, especially Knight of Two, to deal with an army such as the CLA. It would have been more likely for him to have simply sent a competent commander, such as General Eisenhower or General Bradley, to take command of the forces present, perhaps with reinforcements from the Homeland."

"What is this...?" Li muttered as he listened in, feeling a cold shiver run down his spine at Zero's words. As much as it chafed him to know that the Rounds hadn't been sent to deal with him and his army personally, he had a feeling the truth would be much darker. It didn't help that the Knight of Two's expression became even more inquisitive toward Zero's declaration.

Lelouch went on. "However, there is one objective that His Majesty would send three Rounds out here for," he continued, employing his patented dramatic flair as he did. "An objective that is worth far more than a collection of conscripted soldiers in antiquated machinery. An objective that, for the last seven years, has been the treasured centerpiece of the Chinese Liberation Army, such that its members fight in its name alone..."

Then, after a small dramatic pause. "An objective that, if given the power to do so, could rally the downtrodden Twenty-Twos to rise up against their oppressors, and perhaps even overthrow them."

With that, the same realization that had run through Lelouch now quickly ran through all those present, causing no shortage of shocked expressions nor shortness of breath. However, none could compare to the outright horrific expression Li quickly took on.

"No!" Li let out in a near scream, as if the truth had completely encompassed his world. As if reacting to its devicer, the Shen Hu reassumed a defensive posture, the Tianshou following suit as well. "You imperialist scum! You're after her!"

Despite the outburst of emotion, Li had more or less spelled it out better than Lelouch could. "Yes General Li," he acknowledged. "Their objective is none other than Tianzi herself."

That declaration hung in the air as those who heard it could only comprehend. For his part, Johann wasn't put off in the least. He had anticipated the possibility of the CLA and Black Knights realizing his true objective; in fact, he had deemed it almost likely given the intellect of Zero, General Li and several under them. In the end, their realization made no difference. "So what if it is Zero?" he countered. "What sort of difference does that make to our dilemma?"

Lelouch gleamed at that question, not that Johann would have physically seen it due to his mask. "'If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles,'" he quoted what seemed to be the hundredth Sun Tzu line since the Black Knights had entered Area 22. "And as for your second question, that's simple: I now know what you have been fighting for all this time, which makes my position all the more defensible."

Johann sniffed in response. "Defensible, but not impregnable," he countered, feeling his patience begin to wear. This was taking longer than he had wanted. "So long as Tianzi is within our grasp, we..."

Having purposely waited for that declaration, Lelouch at last delivered his reply. "Whoever said Tianzi was even present?"

With the force of a gunshot or thunderclap, that single line instantly ran through the Britannian ranks until covered over the entirety of their forces. Nena looked on with her mouth hung open in silence while Michael could only twitch aimlessly, as if he were trying to formulate a response but failed to put together any proper words. Their expressions however, paled in comparison to the one Johann wore; though the majority of the Knight of Two's remained largely passive, his eyes were widened with uncharismatic shock, such that expression he held toward Kondo's earlier reappearance seemed like nothing. For seemingly the first time since anyone could remember, the Knight of Two and Owl of Britannia was beside himself in surprise, having been taken completely off guard.

And then, not unlike what his opponent had gone through before, Johann felt realization begin to well within him. The CLA's desperate attempt to hold the line at Xiaopei, the Black Knights' late entry into the battle and Zero personally going out of his way to save Li. What Johann had taken note of as individual pieces now fitted together to form a complete whole, all centered around Zero's new declaration and explaining every action his enemies had taken to this point. So apparent, and yet simple enough that Johann had not even considered the possibility.

Before anyone realized what was happening, a single snicker exited the Knight of Two's lips. And from that snicker soon came an entire chain of laughter, with Johann closing his eyes and holding his head up high; the kind of laughter one gave at an extremely funny joke. Discomfort soon swelled throughout the ranks, from the Britannians to the Black Knights and Chinese as a result, as such an outburst felt unnatural coming from the second highest of the Rounds. Michael and Nena especially were taken back by the display; it was the first time either of them had seen or heard Johann laugh.

Lelouch himself was, much to his own discomfort, reminded of Suzaku's last moments at Pearl Harbor. However, he knew that Johann's laughter was not of insanity, but great amusement. Something as rare for the Knight of Two as Green Christmas in the Antarctic.

"Well done, Zero. Well done," Johann let out as his laughter finally died down, his eyes now holding a newfound level of respect toward his opponent. "It is not an easy task to outmaneuver me in so simple and graceful a manner, and with but a single act," he complimented. "In spite of your lackluster performance before, you indeed live up to your legend, Demon King."

Lelouch nodded in turn, accepting his adversary's praise. "You do me great honor, Sir Ernst," he replied. "I trust you now understand my position?"

Johann nodded back. While he could indeed continue the battle and risk an outright massacre to take down Zero and/or Li, thereby costing the Black Knights and/or CLA their collective core leadership, the fact remained that without Tianzi, they would still fall short of fulfilling their central mission objective. As such, any continued conflict in Xiaopei would be pointless, one that even the destruction of Britannia's greatest enemy, assuming Johann could even accomplish it, would not justify. Especially...

"We will withdraw as stipulated," Johann acquiesced, earning him renewed confusion from both Michael and Nena.

"Johann!?" Michael stammered, completely taken back.

"It's as he said Michael. There is nothing left to be gained from this battle," Johann replied, before turning back to his adversary. "But let me warn you Zero, our match does not conclude here." he said, an edge to his voice. "Our endgame has only just begun."

Lelouch gave off one last smirk at that. "I couldn't agree more, Sir Ernst."

With that, the two frames turned around and flew away, their respective escorts following close behind. A few minutes later, the Britannian forces began to pull away, while the three remaining Long Dans, the Mikasa and their respective support groups began moving again.

Britannian Formidable-class land battleship Firestorm
Duchy of Jiangsu, Area 22 (China), Holy Britannian Empire
July 6, 2025

"What the hell are you thinking!?" Michael shouted as soon as Johann's feet touched the Firestorm's floor. Beside him, Nena held a similarly perplexed expression. "We had those bastards on the ropes! We could have...!"

"Accomplished nothing," Johann exclaimed as he let the zipline retract to the now dormant Dinadan, then turning and proceeding out of the hangar. Michael and Nena both did well to follow. "If we had continued the battle, it would have resulted in either a shallow victory or a crushing defeat, with our forces decimated in both scenarios. And as stated, we would have been no closer to fulfilling His Majesty's will than when we first arrived."

"But we would have still taken out Zero and Li!" Nena protested as well.

"Not necessarily," Johann answered as they began walking down the Firestorm's corridors. "Despite the heavy fighting, the Black Knights retained the majority of their forces through the battle, which were further bolstered by Kondo's newly arrived taskforce. They would have stopped at nothing to defend their leader and allied commander," he continued. "At best we would have eliminated just one, most likely Li, and it would have cost much in men and resources to accomplish it."

"But you said..." Michael attempted to protest again.

"That was merely an attempt to provoke Zero and nothing more," Johann replied without missing a beat. "Despite what you may think of me, I am no George Armstrong Custer, Ulysses S. Grant or, for that matter, Reginald Calares. I have no intention of unnecessarily wasting my soldiers in ill-conceived direct assaults, even if they were to succeed."

Soon enough, they came up to one of the Firestorm's lounges and entered in. Once inside, Michael exhaustively threw himself onto a nearby couch, Nena went over to one of the vending machines and Johann remained standing.

After a few minutes of relaxing, Michael began to speak again. "So, it was all for nothing, huh?" the Knight of Five said, turning a corner glance toward Johann. "We waged that whole battle to capture Tianzi, and the bitch wasn't even there."

"And her followers and those damned Black Knights are undoubtedly going back underground," Nena said as her Imperial Crown cola dropped down into the slot. "We'll never find her again."

Despite the negativity from either of his subordinates, Johann held a certain gleam in his eye. "On the contrary, we have her exactly where we want her," he said, regaining the duo's attention. "In fact, short of actually capturing her, I could not have wished for a better outcome."

Michael looked at the Knight of Two as if he had just grown a second head. "Haven't been keeping up with current events Johann!?" he barked. "Zero just kicked us in the teeth!"

"Once again wrong Michael," Johann said as he moved to the center of the room, addressing his two subordinates like a college professor did two students. "While it is indeed Zero's victory, it accomplished but one objective," he said, his voice taking a conspiring tone to it. "Buying time. And not very much of it."

Now Michael looked as though Johann had just grown a third head. "I don't get it."

Sighing, Johann took his own seat, as did Nena. "Recall what Zero said during our exchange. 'You may continue fighting us, but you would be needlessly sacrificing your forces. Forces you will need later on, when the Black Knights and the Chinese Liberation Army at last move to liberate this country.'"

"That was just Zero posturing," Nena quipped as she sipped her cola.

"So he would like us to believe," Johann stated, his eyes now holding great intensity to them. "In truth however, Zero would not have come to this Area if he were not fully prepared to liberate it. And with Tianzi and the CLA backing him up, he has the numbers, as well as the political and social backing, to make such an attempt." his voice then took on the same intensity as his eyes. "The endgame is nigh."

Both Michael and Nena recognized that intensity, and so listened carefully. "What's the plan?" Nena inquired.

The barest smirk entering his lips, Johann picked up and tapped a nearby remote. A second later, a screen at the far end of the room activated and displayed a map of the former territories of the Chinese Federation, which held several red dot markings across. Johann continued. "We will begin hunting down and eliminating the remaining CLA cells," Johann explained. "As we progress, we will eventually force the Black Knights and the CLA into the open, where they will have no choice but to stage one last great offensive for control of Area 22."

When he saw looked over toward Michael and Nena next, Johann saw a distinct thirst in their own eyes. "One final, massive battle on multiple fields to determine the fate of this land. In which the CLA and Black Knights will commit the entirety of their available forces," he explained, please with what he saw. "It is here that we will annihilate both groups once and for all."

"And Tianzi?" Michael questioned.

This time Johann took on a reassured look. "She will have no choice but to participate, whether Zero and/or Li wish it or not," he continued. "As Zero said, Tianzi holds the power to rally the Twenty-Twos against their oppressors; a power that should not be underestimated and could serve as a considerable boon in retaking this nation. And even if it were tactically prudent, she is not one to shelter herself from the final battle."

Johann nodded. "Indeed, she will be present," he said. "And once CLA and Black Knights are decimated, she will be within our reach."

Their earlier fatigue and doubts now forgotten, Michael and Nena both flashed similar smirks to the one Johann now held, though theirs were more intense. They both nodded their approval to their leader.

Once more pleased with what he saw, Johann tapped the screen again, with the map disappearing and being replaced with a live image of the retreating Long Dans and the Black Battleship, each flanked by their respective knightmare forces. Tapping a few more controls, Johann centered the image upon the back of the Artorius, which was also providing escort.

Upon seeing that image, Johann seemingly allowed his lips to fold into a full smirk. "Enjoy your brief respite Zero. You and your forces have earned it," the Knight of Two spoke, ethereally and hauntingly. "Tomorrow however, the game begins anew."

The sun was beginning to set in the west now, darkening the sky and casting shadows across the land. Lelouch found it entirely appropriate, as it signified the end of the day and all that it had entailed, namely the Battle of Xiaopei as it were. It also allowed Lelouch to relax a little; in spite of humanity's inherent fear of darkness, twilight held something of a soothing effect on those who observed it, as if the earth's simple rotating away from the sun were Serenity incarnated. For Lelouch, who did not fear the dark in the least, that effect was even more apparent.

Things had calmed down considerably since the battle had ended not too long ago. As before, the Long Dans continued their trek through the desert, moving as fast as their catepillar treads could take them, while the few Chinese knightmares and armored vehicles that remained ran by their sides, appearing as ants beside a mobile anthill. The Mikasa continued to hold watch from behind, her own knightmares keeping beside her like the Gun Rus had, while Lelouch hung by impassively with the Gurens of Zero Squadron by his side. Broken and battered, the last organized resistance of Area 22 lived on, though at great cost. A true pyrrhic victory all around.

Lelouch hadn't seen the figures yet, but he estimated that over seventy percent of the CLA Xiaopei garrison had been wiped out during the battle. Li was aboard the Da Long Dan now trying to verify the exact numbers, but even without them, Lelouch could tell by sight alone that over half of the largest CLA presence in all of Area 22 was gone. And though he tried to keep his thoughts away from it, he had to admit it stung him on the inside, as it had been he and his Black Knights who had been tasked with saving them. Alongside, it also cast a sense of foreboding within Lelouch. If Xiaopei could have fallen so easily, more easily in fact than he and Kallen had claimed during the earlier negotiations, then how long would the other CLA cells last?

As if responding to his thoughts, Lelouch watched as the Guren Nishiki moved up, settling right beside the Artorius. "So..." Kallen spoke somberly over their shared private channel, the Guren's sapphire eyes fixed on the Chinese remnants. "This is all that we fought so hard for."

"Indeed," Lelouch replied, his own voice devoid of its usual confidence. He did not mind allowing Kallen hear him like that. "The Black Knights' first real battle since Pearl Harbor," he said, himself looking over the Long Dans. "And only thirty percent of the objective was accomplished."

Kallen closed her eyes at that. "And the battle itself was ended on a technicality, rather than our beating or evading the enemy straight out," she said, the words flowing off her tongue like vinegar. It may have not been a total defeat, but it still hurt all the same. "Not exactly our finest hour K-1."

Lelouch smirked a little at that. "We've had worse than this Q-1," he said, memories of the Black Rebellion flashing through his mind. "Much worse."

The Black Knight made no reply to that; she knew exactly what her leader meant. With that in mind, she looked back over the horizon. "So what happens now?"

Lelouch let out a breath before answering. "Now Johann will begin hunting down and exterminating the other CLA cells," he explained. "With the intention of forcing us out to make our final stand."

Disturbance welled up in Kallen's gut at that, as it meant many things. "Do you think he's figured out the full extent of Akai Yoake?" she inquired. "Including the unconventional parts?"

Lelouch shook his head at that thought. "I don't know," he exclaimed, frustration starting to enter his voice. "At the very least he may suspect something, enough to take precautions."

The sun seemed to set even further as Lelouch went on. "What he knows for sure, however, is our offensive strategy, where exactly we will attack and, as a result of his future extermination of the CLA, that said attack will occur all too soon."

Kallen herself felt crestfallen at that. "In short, he knows we're coming," she summarized.

"Not only knows Q-1," Lelouch corrected. "He's going to ensure it."

The Red Dragoness felt a shiver run through her body as she, through that explanation, considered an all too likely scenario. "Could we have already lost this one?" she muttered distastefully, as if her body refused to believe it even when her mind understood.

Much to her surprise, Lelouch laughed slightly at that. "That's a very strong possibility," he replied. "Before we had a near guarantee of victory, but now...now it can go either way, even with all the planning and preparations we've made."

"That doesn't exactly inspire confidence," Kallen quipped.

"Perhaps not," Lelouch concurred. "But all the same, we will finish what we started here." he said, before looking over the horizon. "In a few days' time, the Chinese Insurrection will come to an end, and the first phase of our own war will be complete," he then added rather hesitantly. "Whether in victory or defeat."

Kallen nodded as she looked back over the horizon herself. By now, the sun had nearly disappeared behind it, and the shadows had grown even greater in scope as a result. Both warriors found that sight all too fitting for what laid ahead.