Gi kingdom, capital city Xuchou

One year and one week after the prophesied arrival of the Messenger of Heaven

Ragna and the leadership of Zhuo—as well as Sousou and her own generals—watched the borders of Gi and Zhuo very carefully for the next month or two, while taking their own steps to consolidate and build their strength. Though Gien and Gengan's holdings were modest at best, the takeover of both Enshou and Enjutsu's lands on top of them left Ragna and his group in charge of pretty much the entire northeastern corner of the continent. It also meant that any incursions from Sousou's army into the old En lands would now be an incursion upon Ragna's land, and more or less an open declaration of war. With Gakushin, Riten, and Ukin out in the west during Gien and Gengan's arrival to Xizang, Sousou couldn't afford that kind of mistake.

Attempting to fight a two-front war would inevitably add Go to the mix, since they now bordered Zhuo's southern holdings; with Sonsaku officially back in command, Go had begun increasing its own land-share, and it was a common assumption between both Gi and Zhuo that if a war started, Go would either wait for both armies to decimate themselves before swooping in, or throw their lot in with the winning side and wipe out the losers with superior numbers.

Once the entire military was gathered together on all sides, plans could begin in earnest.

About a year and a week after Ragna's appearance in China, three young women at the head of a massive army of Gi soldiers strode through Xuchou's gates with their soldiers intact and heads held high.

The leader of these girls, Bunken Gakushin, was tall with medium brown skin, violet eyes, and a variety of paler scars marking her arms, legs, and face. Her silver hair was short and messy all over, and a long braid trailed down from the nape of her neck to the back of her knees; a pair of beads, one black and one gold, tied off the braid at the end. She'd taken off her armor, leaving her in a purple vest-like top trimmed with gold and white ruffles at the bottom, as well as two pieces of navy cloth that draped down from beneath the vest in the front and the back. Her outfit was completed by a dark girdle- stocking combination and solid brown boots.

Mansei Riten walked on Gakushin's left side, looking around the city with her blue eyes. Her hair was a pale lavender color, done up in two wild pigtails held up with skull-shaped pins. A pair of goggles hung around her neck, and she wore a yellow-and-navy striped bikini and detached sleeves like Sousou's, with a navy mantle attached to the back of the metal braces on her forearms. A large pair of criss-crossing brown belts and black shorts sat at her waist, with a pair of loose black stockings and sturdy brown shoes finishing the ensemble.

Bunsoku Ukin took Gakushin's right side, humming a song to herself as she matched her companions' steps. She had short auburn hair and bright green eyes; the former was cut mostly in a short bob, with a long braid on the top-right side of her head, while the latter was hidden behind a large pair of round glasses. She wore a lilac-colored vest, trimmed with gold; it was cut to stop just below her bustline, and was wide open from the breastbone on down, leaving her chest to be covered by a white top. She sported detached sleeves and a skirt of the same color as her vest, with a shorter green skirt underneath the first skirt. Unlike both Riten and Gakushin, she wore loose, knee-high socks and sensible blue-and-black flats, but like Riten, she had a number of skull-shaped charms on her person, most prominently at the base of her braid and hanging off the purple belt of her skirt.

Gakushin was the only one of the three that did not smile, while Riten and Ukin were practically bursting with pride. Their mission had been long but not necessarily difficult thanks to small snags with weather conditions and such, but all three of the Gi generals were happy to be home. Being newer additions to Gi's court, the three girls never got quite as much "praise" as some of Sousou's older and more tenured generals, but the three of them (Gakushin in particular) were more than fine with that.

The atmosphere, however, was nowhere near as cheerful as Riten and Ukin; the civilians whispered and murmured as the three girls led their forces back to the castle, and Gakushin noted their reactions with a troubled frown on her face. The last missives from Lady Karin didn't indicate any kind of unrest in the city...what's going on to make everyone so skittish?

Riten nudged Gakushin a few times with her left elbow, grinning even wider. "Looks like everyone's spooked about somethin', eh, Nagi? You think maybe Lady Karin's been talking about finally getting down to business with that Ragna?"

"Maybe, maybe not, Maou," Gakushin replied, keeping her face forward. "We'll find out soon enough."

"About time we get to see if he's really as good as they say he is," Ukin said, adjusting her glasses. "Lady Karin wouldn't say so if she wasn't serious about it, but I'm still not sure if he's THAT amazing."

Gakushin sighed, and put her hands on her hips, turning around to face them. "'A man rumored to stand nine feet tall rarely reaches five feet in reality,'" she said. "It's no more and no less than hearsay. The proof will come when he stands in front of us on the battlefield." She turned around again and walked off, stepping twice as fast as before as she led the way to the palace. Riten and Ukin followed after her, sharing a brief, questioning glance between themselves as they did.

"You think maybe Nagi's worried about this fight, Sawa?" Riten asked, lowering her eyelids and whispering through the side of her mouth. "Doesn't seem like her to get so easily riled up."

Ukin shook her head. "Nah. She probably just wanted us to stop gossiping."

As Gakushin and the others made their way through Xuchou, Sousou was busy attending to matters of state inside the palace itself. In her throne room, she sat at the head of a rectangular wooden table that faced the double-door entrance. It had ten seats in total—one at the head of the table, another at the foot, and four on each side—with Jun'iku, Kakouton and Kyocho sitting on her left side and Kakouen and Ten'i on her right. A large map was unfurled and placed at the center of the table; it was somewhat old, but given the information they had, its outdated parts could easily be compensated for and corrected during their meeting.

Two of the unfilled seats, one on each side of the table, belonged to two other strategists. They were relatively new to their positions when compared to Kakouton or Kakouen's tenures, but trusted and talented enough to establish the plans that Sousou had given to Gakushin, Riten, and Ukin for subduing the west. Sousou had left them behind to defend the capital with Gakushin, Riten, and Ukin during the anti-Toutaku campaign, and while she was planning on leaving them behind again, she needed their input to be certain if that was the best course of action.

The first strategist sat next to Ten'i; her name was Houkou Kakuka. She was a young woman with brown hair bound in a long horizontal braid across the back of her head. She wore a green sleeveless dress that opened up like a jacket from the waist down, with a collared white shirt underneath it and a dark red bow on her chest; a pair of black gloves on each hand stopped right before the crook of her elbow. Her blue eyes were hidden behind a large, thinly-rimmed pair of half-moon glasses, and she occasionally adjusted them with the back of her left pointer finger.

The second sat next to Kyocho; her name was Chuutoku Teiiku. She appeared to be a little bit younger than Kyocho, around Enjutsu's age, with wavy pale-blonde hair that reached down to the back of her knees and sleepy green eyes. She wore a sky-blue jacket with long, flowing sleeves and gold trim; it extended out to a knee-high, navy colored dress with white ruffles lining the interior and a cream-colored skirt underneath it. The most unusual parts of her appearance, though, were the pink spiral lollipop in her mouth and the white and gold hand-puppet sitting on her head.

Sousou looked at her assembled leadership team with a small sigh, resting her cheek in her right hand. She wanted to start after Gakushin, Riten, and Ukin showed up so that she wouldn't have to repeat themselves, and going by the timing of their last report they were supposed to show up soon. If they took much longer, though, she'd have to start without them anyway; the plans that she had in mind were time-consuming, and they needed to get started on them.

Of course, right as Sousou straightened up and got ready to speak, the doors to the conference room opened, and Gakushin walked in with Riten and Ukin at her heels. "Forgive us for being late, Lady Karin," Gakushin said to Sousou, bowing deeply to her and then to the others. "We had to take a detour on the road."

Sousou let out another sigh and shook her head with a small smile. "Your timing is impeccable, Nagi. I was about to begin speaking anyway. Go on, take your seats, and let's begin."

Gakushin immediately sat down at the foot of the table, while Riten and Ukin took the seats nearest to her. Sousou then stood up, resting her hands on the table and leaning forward. "Intelligence is telling us that Ragna's begin to reinforce his defenses on his southern border—which is now our norther border," she said. "Our main goal now is to prepare our strike against Ragna and attack him while his guard is down. He has a habit of reacting to other people's plans instead of trying to stop them, which means that as long as we don't tip our hand early, he won't try to attack us before we attack him."

Sousou gestured to the map, and the others looked at it carefully; they, too, knew it was outdated, but except Gakushin, Riten, and Ukin, they were all up-to-date on what was where. "At this point, all of the territories on that map that are listed as Enshou and Enjutsu's property now belong to Ragna. This puts him more or less right on Go's northern border insofar as the southern limit of his territory, but because of where we're positioned, we're effectively between him and Enjutsu's former holdings. Even now, he probably has less soldiers than we do, so we might be in a position to block off any possible reinforcements he could get by land or by sea." Sousou sat back down and folded her hands in front of her face. "As it stands, though, he can compensate for his low troop count through the power of the generals he has on his side."

"We should go for the blockade, Lady Karin," Kakouton said, clenching her fist as she rose from her chair. "While Shuuran, Kii, Ruru and I wear down Ragna from the front, his aid from Enjutsu's territory can be suppressed on the ground by Nagi or Maou. If we engage him far enough inland, then even reinforcements arriving by boat will have to work their way back west from the coast; by then, we'll win!"

Kakouen folded her arms and shook her head. "So my impetuous sister says, but I find it worth pointing out that Ragna did not quite pare down Enshou's troops when he took Nanpi and the rest of Jizhou with it. It's only been about a month or so, but by now it's possible he's integrated at least some of that fighting force and most of Enshou's resources into his military."

Jun'iku nodded, and let out a puff of air from the side of her mouth as she scowled. "Shuuran's right. At the very least he probably took as many horses and soldiers as he could. With the right commander, even Enshou's incompetents pose a much more serious threat to us now than before."

"Let's not forget that Go could also be a dangerous factor here," Kakuka said, adjusting her glasses again. "Sonsaku's back in charge now, not that bleeding heart Sonken. Any weaknesses on our part are like an invitation for her to spring on us and crush us. Knowing Sonsaku, she might even be pushing to force us into a two-front war independent of Zhuo's movements even as we speak."

Sousou sighed again. "All of that's true. What makes it even more troublesome is that I'm fairly certain Sonken and Ragna did at least talk a little bit during the anti-Toutaku alliance. Our spies have no news of any communication between them, but there's no telling what could happen." She rubbed her chin, then smiled suddenly as she realized what she'd just said. "However...the fact that Ragna stands to gain so much territory if we lose might also stay Go's hand to assist him. He wouldn't bother attacking them afterward, but with a good chunk of the continent under his direct control, their own ability to conquer would be threatened."

"Then we should reach out to Go and see...if they've considered that angle," Tei'iku said. Though her voice was soft and almost monotone, the acoustics of the room helped it carry. "Even if they deny us, the doubt...might make Sonsaku reconsider how well she treats Zhuo in a potential alliance."

Sousou nodded at Tei'iku, closing her eyes. "See to it then, Fuu. We'll reinforce the troops on that border anyway, and if necessary we can probably send Maou or Sawa down to lead them. I want Nagi closer to the frontlines."

Gakushin, Riten, and Ukin nodded their agreement, and Sousou focused on Kakouton and Kakouen. "Shunran, Shuuran. Begin to move some of the troops to the northern border as well, and have our supply chains prepared. We will attack Zhuo's border after they have finished their preparations but before they begin an attack."

Kakouton and Kakouen bowed their heads.

Sousou then turned to Kyocho and Ten'i. "Kii, Ruru, make sure that our newer soldiers have completed their basic drills. We won't be taking them to the battlefield, but if they're doing border patrol, they need to be prepared. Once that's done, send them to Shunran and Shuuran so that they can be placed where they're needed."

"You can count on us, Lady Karin," Kyocho said. "Those Zhuo guys won't know what hit 'em."

"Then, I think we're done here," Sousou said, leaning back in her seat. "You're all dismissed."

One by one, the officers stood and departed, saluting or bowing as they did. When the room was completely empty, Sousou sighed and stood up as well, rubbing her chin. "So it finally begins...I was expecting to be happier about this, yet...I feel uneasy." She turned her back on the table and stared up at the ceiling of the room, putting her hands behind her back. "Ragna...for your sake more than mine, I hope you've cultivated that beautiful anger of yours. If not, then I can throw you away. Kan'u will be enough to satisfy me."

Zhuo district, Youzhou province, Xizang

One year and one week after the prophesied arrival of the Messenger of Heaven

Since Ragna had already resolved to reinforce the troops stationed along his new border with Gi, he had already spoken to his generals about what would be coming in the following months, and they had long since decided on a plan of attack. Once reinforcements to the border were complete, they would mobilize in force and work their way into Gi bit by bit. There were two fortresses that they were primarily interested in hitting on the way to Xuchou, and if they won them, they would have a solid enough footing to set up a supply chain from some of their border cities while they continued to push through to Xuchou. With all those plans and preparations set, there was little to do in Xizang except to prepare the troops for the struggle to come. As a result, while Sousou schemed, Ragna prepared, and now that the work was done, he was out in the town and enjoying himself.

At least, that had been the plan before things got off-track

Kan'u had spied him leaving the palace, and since she'd finished their own duties for the day, she tagged along with 'd shared a quiet, pleasant walk without saying much in the way of pleasantries until they'd gotten through the main gates of the palace. Then, Chouhi had seen them from the walls and put herself on "break" to go into town with them, too. The first restaurant they'd stopped at for food turned out to be a restaurant that Kouchuu and Gengan frequented on their days off, and so he'd left there with those two in tow as well. Subsequently, he spent most of the trip back to the palace with Kouchuu walking on one side of him, Kan'u on the other, Gengan watching from behind with an amused smile, Chouhi riding piggyback, and the majority of the population staring at him with shock or envy.

Once he got back to the castle, Kan'u walked off with a red-faced briskness. Chouhi wandered off not long after that, and Gengan departed at around the same time to go check on Gien. That left Ragna and Kouchuu actually alone for the first time since she'd come to Xizang; most of the time, their work schedules rarely intersected, placing them in different parts of the palace or the city at different times of the day.

"It was nice to spend some time with you today, Lord Ragna," Kouchuu said, smiling pleasantly. "We've never had much opportunity to talk outside of working. Though I'm sorry that Kikyou and I wound up intruding on you, Aisha, and Rinrin...Kikyou's rather fond of you and she tends to get pushy because of that."

"Yeah, it's all right." Ragna said, rubbing his neck. "I'm used to it." He tapped a foot against the ground a few times, looking down for a moment, then raised his head. "Is everything, you know, going all right? Not just with training your archers or whatever, but in general. You don't talk a lot about Riri or anything, so..."

Kouchuu smiled and adjusted the green shawl wrapped around her arms. "Both Riri and I have adjusted quite fine. She especially enjoys her naps with you, and she's been sleeping a lot better lately."

Kouchuu was referring to nightmares that had been plaguing Riri since she'd been kidnapped by Enshou's soldiers. They'd been much worse when she'd first arrived from Lecheng, and Kouchuu had been at a loss to address the problem at all. Things gradually settled down, though, as Riri seemed to find herself in Ragna's bedroom when the worst dreams came, clutching the lord of Zhuo as if he were a giant living teddy bear.

Ragna sighed and folded his arms. "Considering I'm not waking up to the words 'good morning, big brother' every morning, I'm inclined to agree."

Kouchuu's warm smile set off an odd flutter in Ragna's stomach. However, he controlled his reactions well, and not even the closest glance at him would reveal his true feelings. Unfortunately for him, Kouchuu was well-practiced in cracking people's stern facades, and simply cranked up her smile. "I wonder, though, if she might get used to calling you 'daddy' one day."

Ragna's expression promptly went beet red, and he coughed into his fist, looking away from Kouchuu. "Don't joke with me about shit like that," he mumbled. "I really have not had good experiences with girls and romance."

He soon regretted his choice of words, as Kouchuu drew closer to him and gently pressed herself against him. "But I'm not a girl, Lord Ragna, and I would never think of you as a boy either. I'm a woman, and you're a man." She ran a hand down his back, very gently and very slowly teasing his body beneath his clothes with the tips of her fingers. She felt his back stiffen for a moment, and heard him take in a deep breath through his nose, likely taking in the scents of jasmine and lavender that she liked to use. However, she could feel his discomfort and tenseness, so she withdrew slightly. She did, however, take a moment to fit her hand into his, squeezing gently before letting go. "Even if you don't quite feel like exploring what that means, just remember that in the future."

Ragna nodded, well aware that his face was still bright red. She read me like a book. If I'm not careful I'll just go marching at her pace."Back where I came from, the government wanted me dead for some shit I did and most people were scared of me. I've been here a year and most people are scared of me, respect me, adore me, or can't stop trying to kiss my ass. I'm not used to this kind of attention." He turned away from her, and sighed. "But I can't say that I dislike the idea of getting serious with someone. The only problem is that there's more than one person that interests me like that."

That's not surprising, Kouchuu thought. With the way you and Aisha were looking at each other earlier today, I was fairly certain that I wasn't the only one you liked.Out loud, though, she simply said, "Oh, I see."

"And to be honest with you," Ragna said, raising and lowering his shoulders slightly, "I don't want to worry about something like that with a war on the horizon. It's...distracting, and we all need to be focused on what we've got to do when the time comes." He gripped his biceps tightly enough to make his gloves and knuckles creak. "I absolutely refuse to lose to that goddamn brat Sousou. That means I gotta be at the top of my game, and I can't be worrying about whether or not the people I like are getting hurt on the battlefield."

"And I think you shouldn't worry so much about that, considering who it is that you feel so strongly about," Kouchuu replied. She strode forward and stepped around Ragna, stepping to stand in front of him; when she did so, he looked up to face her, his face drawn in a somber frown. "She is the Black-Haired War God and the First Vassal of Youzhou. She's not invincible, but she can take care of herself. You have to trust her and respect her strength."

Ragna's shoulders sagged a little bit. "You knew already."

Kouchuu smiled. "I think we all know by now. Kikyou was a little disappointed when she realized it herself, but she'll get over it. She knows better than to try and force herself on someone that's interested in someone else." Her expression turned a bit teasing. "It didn't hurt that I'd heard some stories about what happened with some of the richer families around here, and told her a little about it. When Kikyou was done laughing, she said that it was a miracle you hadn't sworn off women at all after that."

"You're telling me," Ragna grumbled. "Anyway...just, for right now, let me and Aisha try to work it out, OK? I'm not gonna lie, you did catch my attention when we met, but Aisha was pretty much one of the first two people to really stick this madness out with me, and I think she feels the same way about me that I do about her. If nothing else, I want to know for sure."

Kouchuu stroked his arm with a soft gentleness that Ragna could have sworn he felt through the fabric of his jacket. However, like before, she withdrew afterward. "It's like I said, Lord Ragna. I don't think of you as a boy, but a man. That means that I have to let you make your own decisions. You and Aisha would be good for each other, but if things don't seem to be working out..."

Ragna met her eyes with his own, then nodded, and left, looking lost in thought. Kouchuu watched him, then sighed with a gentle smile and shook her head. "The lovely young widow falls in love after years of living without her husband, and the first man she's interested in since that sad time began is interested in a younger woman. It's right out of a romantic story, isn't it?"

On the border of Gi and Zhuo

One year and three weeks after the prophesied arrival of the Messenger of Heaven

It took two weeks in total for the conflict between Zhuo and Gi to finally get started.

Because Sousou had anticipated Ragna's attempts to prepare for their battle, she had been exceedingly diligent in making sure that she would be ready for him. The end result was that her preparations were, as she'd anticipated, finished before Ragna's, and by the time he had the last of his soldiers reinforcing the border fortresses, she already had her own forces waiting at the border itself for Zhuo's inevitable incursion, led by Riten and Ukin.

Once Ragna's supply chain was established, about a week after his little conversation with Kouchuu, he sent a group to a fortress near Gi's border to establish vision and information—nothing serious, just a small glimpse of the nearby surroundings. Unfortunately, though, Riten was having none of that, and ambushed the unit before they even made it there, then took control of it themselves before beginning to spread out from there.

Ragna didn't receive the news until three days later, at which point he let out a shout that was said to shake the entire city of Xizang like an earthquake.

Four days later, he was at the border with Kan'u, Chouhi, Shokatsuryou, Chou'un, Bachou, and Kouchuu in tow, along with Chouryou, Batai, and Gengan; Houtou stayed behind to assist Ryuubi, Gien had all but begged Ragna to let her stay with Ryuubi, and neither Ryofu nor Kayuu was interested in going out to fight against Gi. The entire ride there would've been unpleasant enough if only Ragna was upset, but the moment that Bachou and Batai heard the news, their faces had gone stone-still before they'd gone off to pack and prepare as quickly as possible. Since then, they'd been completely silent, and totally unreadable; they hadn't even bothered sniping at each other for all four days of the trip, and only interacted with other people to get food or to train soldiers.

Ragna was at least mildly more sociable, if single-word answers and lots of grunting counted as being sociable in any context, but no one dared to approach him, not even the fearless Chouhi. He was putting out an aura of sheer anger that no one was willing to deal with.

Each general, Ragna included, was riding with each of their personal units in addition to the larger general force. Against Gi's numbers it wouldn't be much, exactly, but there was one thing that a very overconfident Riten wasn't taking into account when she sent her soldiers out from Ragna's fortress to fight and defeat him—they were mad as hell.

As the fortress came into view, Ragna adjusted himself on Cerberus and swept his red-green gaze over the mass of soldiers that were waiting for them there, squinting against the noon sun overhead. He didn't see any flags matching the description of Kakouton's or Kakouen's, which was both a relief and an annoyance—he'd been happy to tear apart either of Sousou's top generals to get over his immense frustration, but he knew it wouldn't be a fight he'd win easily, and he wasn't in the mood to nearly get killed at the start of what would be a very long, very bloody campaign.

Especially since the Azure Grimoire still wasn't functioning.

He hadn't worried much about it before, but with the possibility of a war on the horizon, he'd spent half of the trip trying to activate it again. Every time, it responded with only a few weak flickers of flame. Whatever had happened to it was either going to last for a while longer or stay permanent, and he had no one around him that would be able to help him understand why. All he had to rely on was his own strength, and considering that he'd toppled at least three kingdoms with said strength, that didn't seem too bad.

Beside him, Kan'u shifted uncomfortably on her horse, sparing a moment to glance at Ragna out of the corner of her eye. For the first time in the last four days, he didn't seem like he wanted to murder the next person to look at him. The fact that his concentrated frustration was enough to keep Chouhi at bay when she'd been the first person to approach him after his outburst with Sousou all those months ago spoke volumes. Now, though, he was as calm as she figured he was going to get, so she spoke. "Lord Ragna. Is everything all right?"

Ragna blinked, and looked in Kan'u's direction. Seeing that she was unusually tense and uncomfortable, he nodded at her, making an effort to unbend his scowl into a more neutral frown. "I really just want to fight and get it all over with. Going by the report, these jackasses are supposed to be led by some girl named Riten, right? I'm gonna find her flag and bust straight through to it, and if she doesn't surrender I'm gonna probably splat her like a bug."

"We've already established a proper plan, Lord Ragna," Shoukatsuryou said, raising her voice in slight annoyance as she rode her own small pony up to Ragna and Kan'u. "I would appreciate it if you didn't try to disrupt that."

"Wasn't planning on it, Shuri. I'm not that dumb, appearances aside," Ragna replied. "So we're still gonna go for the divide and conquer strategy? We don't know enough about this Riten to be sure that she's dumb enough to fall for it. And if she doesn't, then we're going to be in a bad situation."

Shoukatsuryou nodded, but kept her face set in a firm, confident line. "If it works, though, then we'll have won the battle with little cost to us. That's the most important thing here."

Ragna's raw impatience began to fade, and Shoukatsuryou knew that he was settling back into the role of leader that he had been growing into. He was still impulsive and impatient, but only when he didn't have any action to face. At times like this, when the pressure was on...that was when his best traits shined. And going by the way Kan'u blushed slightly at the firmer, calmer look on his face, she thought so, too, even if she didn't say anything about it.

In short order, the rest of his generals rode up to where he was waiting. By now, the Gi forces were starting to surge forward, bit by bit becoming a larger blot of purple on the horizon. Ragna didn't bother to turn and address them, opting just to raise his voice instead. "You all know the plan, right?"

"We're ready, my Lord," Bachou said, shifting her spear in her hand. It was the first time she'd spoken since they'd left Xizang. Beside her, Batai nodded wordlessly. "We just came to make sure you were all right before leading our charges."

"I'm more than fine," Ragna replied. "Shia, Kikyou, Bachou, Batai, Rinrin, I'm counting on the both of you to make sure that Shuri stays safe. The plan's going to be really risky, and underhanded besides that. If this Riten girl is as easily irritated as that Kakouton is, then the moment she figures out what we did, she'll be pissed."

"The plan is sound, but in that girl's position I'd hardly blame her for being upset by it," Kan'u said, wrinkling her nose. When Shoukatsuryou had come up with it, Kan'u had lodged a complaint with a simple disgusted look; it was so unlike the straightforward battles that she preferred, but Ragna had approved it the moment Shoukatsuryou was done explaining it, which mean that she just had to be quiet and accept it.

"Now, Aisha, come on. Shuri explained why it had to be this way, and more importantly she talked me and Lord Ragna of all people into accepting it," Chouryou said, adjusting her Flying Dragon Blade and fixing Kan'u with a sober, green-eyed stare. "We like our head-on fights as much as anyone else, but facts are facts. We don't have the time or the manpower for something like that."

Kan'u sighed. "I know. May I just be dissatisfied about it regardless, Shia?"

Chouryou put on her usual catlike smile. "If you let me cuddle with you afterward, you can think whatever you want."

Kan'u flushed red, but Ragna knew from a glance at her face that it wasn't the same as when he talked to her. "Enough of that, Shia. Lord Ragna, I think it's time to get going."

Ragna nodded. "Go join up with your units. Rinrin, Shion, Bachou—remember to draw them away from the center so that Shia and Kikyou don't get swamped."

Gengan let out a hearty laugh and rode closer to Ragna, smacking him on the back. When he turned to look at her with mild annoyance, the wide grin on her face stopped his angry rebuke. "Don't worry about a thing. I may not look the part—" here, she tapped a hand against the large shoulder pauldron on her right shoulder, which was the only bit of armor she'd put on to fight—"but I'm damn good at siege and stalling tactics, especially with Shion and the others backing me up. You just focus on your part, Lord Ragna."

Her confidence bolstered Ragna's, and he turned Cerberus to face the rear. "All right then. Let's go."

At the front of the Gi army, Riten grumbled in annoyance as she peered through the spyglass in her left hand; her right held up her personalized weapon, the Spiral Spear. It was a black spear with a literal drill for a head, with some complicated machinery behind it to make the bits rotate at high speed. A pair of goggles dangled around her neck, and two green bags, each filled with tools, rested on each of her hips. "I can't see Ragna's flag anywhere...there's no way he's not out here, though. Lady Karin said he's not the lazy kind of leader that lets his subordinates fight for him."

At her side, Ukin nodded in agreement, fingering the pommel of one of the two swords sheathed at her hips. "They're planning something, but we won't know until we fight them. And by the looks of it, they're coming straight at us, so we won't have time to get distracted."

Riten aimed the spyglass a little further back. "The flags Chou and Gen are flying, so it's probably Chouryou and Gengan leading those troops. They're not much of a threat. We can just go out in force and crush them, then go looking for the rest if they don't come in to help Chouryou and Gengan." She collapsed the glass and put it into one of her pouches, then put her left hand on her hip, tapping her Spiral Spear on her right shoulder. "I've heard that Gengan's got a weird-ass weapon of some kind; I wanna see it so maybe I might be able to get some design inspiration of my own. Would you mind taking care of Chouryou for me, Sawa?"

Ukin sighed. "Geez, Maou. If you get distracted by whatever it is Gengan is using, you'd better be ready for Lady Karin to scold you for losing a fortress over it."

"By the time she found out about it, I'd probably be dead anyway, so it doesn't bother me," Riten replied, lifting up her goggles and securing them over her eyes. "I'll lead this time, Sawa. Keep an eye out for any tricks they try to pull, OK?"

"I've always got your back," Ukin said. She drew her swords and nodded, then raised her voice. "All right, men! Lady Riten's unit, lead the charge! My men will stay behind and keep an eye out for the major flags that Zhuo might start flying at some point—Kan, Chou, Kou, Ba, or Xizang's standard flag! Sound an alert the moment you see any of those!"

The men let up a roar of acknowledgment, and with a wild grin, Riten charged forward, causing the cloak attached to the bottom of her sleeves to billow behind her. With the press of a button, her Spiral Spear's engine revved to life, spinning the head at intense speeds.

"Come on, Zhuo!" she roared. "Let's see what you've got!"

Riten's charge crashed into Gengan and Chouryou's front not long after Riten departed from the fortress. The Gi offensive was blisteringly rough, and Gengan's self-proclaimed stalling tactics were put to the test almost immediately, as Riten's main force split into three prongs—two groups attempted to flank from the sides, while Riten herself lead the main charge down the middle, attempting to break the line by force. The Zhuo soldiers were holding up admirably, rebuffing her own forces and breaking her flanking forces with careful fighting and support from Kouchuu and Bachou, but with her Spiral Spear, Riten was having no problem breaking the weaker parts of the line.

That changed, though, when Gengan finally took the field.

Riten and a group of her soldiers had just pushed her way through to the heart of the formation in front of her when Gengan leaped into the fray, holding a strange spear-like weapon that made Riten's eyes light up the moment she saw it. The head of the weapon looked like a four-chamber revolver attached to a short, semi-crooked shaft, as if it were a spear. The underside of the weapon had a long, crooked blade attached to it, and a sharp silver spike jutted out above the blade itself. Gengan's left hand grasped the weapon by the shaft, while her right firmly gripped a rectangular handle at the top of the weapon's head. Despite its odd appearance, its destructive power was proved in full when Gengan used the blade to slash down an unfortunate Gi soldier. As he fell, she leveled the weapon toward the nearest soldier and squeezed her right hand over a trigger on the shaft. The spike above the blade shot forward with a loud hiss and punched through the body armor of Gengan's target, then retracted, leaving the unfortunate man to crumble with a dry choking sound.

Riten grimaced, even as her heart skipped a beat at the strange functions of Gengan's weapon. She quickly changed her expression to a confident smirk, and raised her voice. "Back off, men. She'll spit you like a fish over a fire. I'll handle this."

"Confidence is very appealing in a young lady, but being overconfident is a problem too," Gengan replied, leveling her weapon so that it was parallel to the ground. "If you think you can take me in a fight, then by all means come. If, however, you die, you can only blame yourself."

"Lady Sousou and my friends are counting on me to make it home," Riten said, shifting her legs apart as she pointed her spear at Gengan's throat. "You're pretty cool for an old bird, but if you think I'm gonna die here, you're wrong." Her expression widened into a broad, bloodthirsty smile. "I'll be taking that weapon of yours when we're done, too. Once I get a chance to break it down and analyze it, I think I'll make one for myself."

Gengan sighed and shook her head, but the amused smile on her face never faded. The golden attachments and tassel on her hairpins blew backward in the wind as her fingers hovered over the trigger once more. "There's only one heaven, girl, and only one Heaven Cannon. If you think you can duplicate it, then strike me down and try."

Riten's grin grew even wider, and she spun up her Spiral Spear again before charging in. Gengan sighed and sidestepped the straightforward attack, then swung the Heaven Cannon inward, intending to slash Riten's exposed side open with the underside of the weapon. Riten wasn't nearly as off-balance as she looked, though, and whirled around, using the force to buck the Heaven Cannon away with the head of her spear. As Riten did so, she flared the Spiral Spear again, creating an extra bit of force that nearly jarred the weapon out of Gengan's hands. With Gengan's slight unbalance, Riten had enough room to kick Gengan in the gut, followed by a fierce diving pounce from the Spiral Spear. Gengan quickly rolled out of the way, leaving Riten to jam the head of the spear into the ground, then lashed out with a textbook high kick, smacking Riten in the forehead.

As Riten stumbled back, Gengan kept up the pressure, and swiped out with the Heaven Cannon again; this time, she tagged Riten's arm with a slash from the blade, and followed up with a shot from the spike. Riten rolled to the side, but it still scraped against her rib, and a nasty squelching sound cut the air as it did. Grimacing, Riten took a step back, ignoring the urge to clamp a hand over her bleeding wound.

"I warned you about that cockiness of yours," Gengan said, rolling her shoulders. "But you don't seem afraid to keep coming. I don't know whether to call that foolish or entertaining."

Riten spun up the drill again, grinning fiercely. "Call it whatever you want, old lady. All I know is that Lady Karin's counting on me to make sure that Zhuo loses here!"

Gengan briefly flicked her eyes upward, looking over and past Riten's shoulder. She could see that Kan'u and Chouryou's flags were going up and engaging Ukin; past that, though, she couldn't tell what else was going on. She sighed, and looked to the side briefly; her men were holding out just fine, but it would be a tricky proposition.

Don't die, Shia, Aisha. Just try to hold out...

As that thought crossed Gengan's mind, Kan'u and Chouryou, mounted on their horses and holding their respective weapons in one hand, turned to look at each other. Their respective forces, moving up opposite sides of the battlefield, had managed to sneak up behind Riten thanks to Gengan breaking the flank and keeping them distracted. Moreover, their numbers were bolstered by the fact that the entirely of Ragna and Chou'un's squads, including Ragna and Chou'un themselves, had joined them—but not to battle against Ukin, who was rapidly approaching Kan'u's line to stop her from advancing further.

They would be integral to the final part of the plan.

At the moment, the two Zhuo generals had already positioned themselves and their men for battle; Chouryou's forces were closer to Riten's rear flank, while Kan'u's men were facing in Ukin's direction.

The two women didn't speak for a few moments, but Kan'u at last broke the silence. "I will hold them only long enough for Lord Ragna and Sei to advance on the fortress. After that, I'll have to regroup with you. Do you think you can wear down Riten enough by then?"

"I'm no Black Haired War God, but I think I'm competent enough to handle a little job like that," Chouryou replied, allowing herself a chuckle despite the steel in her green eyes.

Kan'u rubbed the back of her horse's neck, and returned Chouryou's laugh with a firm nod. "I expect to see you again when all is done. Pay attention, and don't underestimate Riten or her men." A hint of worry crept into her voice. "If by some chance Lord Ragna will be up to us. We can't afford to be injured in this push."

Chouryou slashed down her Flying Dragon Blade and nudged her horse forward to the head of her line. "I know, Aisha."

The resolve in Chouryou's voice calmed Kan'u's nerves, and she turned her attention back to Ukin's approaching forces. With a quiet click of the tongue and a nudging of the horse's flanks, she made her way to the front of her line.

We will not lose to you, Moutoku Sousou. Even if it costs us our lives.

As Ukin and her men approached and engaged Kan'u's line, the final phase of Shoukatsuryou's plan began.

Because the two generals had been lured away from the fortress proper, most of the forces stationed there had naturally gone with them. Moreover, with Chouryou and Kan'u added into the fray, Riten and Ukin's attentions were even more split than normal—and that one mistake led to the moment that reversed the tide of the entire battle.

When Ukin began to fight Kan'u, and when Chouryou engaged Riten, Ragna and Chou'un's units split off from Kan'u and Chouryou's groups and slowly made their way around the ongoing battles to regroup behind Ukin's forces. Once they did so successfully, Ragna and Chou'un, mounted and armed, took their places at the head of the line, and looked straight ahead of them; the fortress was only a few minutes away, and though they didn't have a concrete fix on the number of forces stationed in it, the plan didn't exactly count on a prolonged siege.

Chou'un spared a glance over her shoulder for a moment, then turned back to Ragna with a smile on her thin lips. "Ukin and Riten are entrenched, Lord Ragna. It's time to go."

Ragna nodded and Cerberus stirred beneath him with a calm snort. "I'm counting on you, Sei. Let's do it quick and quiet."

Wordlessly, Chou'un spurred her horse onward, and their men marched behind her; Ragna allowed them to pass around him until he was in the middle of the group, then rode forward as one of the men in front of him raised Chou'un's flag into the air, effectively hiding him and Cerberus from sight. They continued on in this way until they arrived within firing range of the fortress, at which point a hail of arrows flew up to greet them.

The men raised their shields and defended as best they could, and Ragna immediately broke out of the larger group as soon as the hail of projectiles stopped, riding around to the western side of the fortress. He moved quickly enough that the distracted archers on the ramparts took little or no notice of him, and right as he disappeared from sight entirely, Chou'un returned fire, keeping their attention entirely on her.

Thus hidden from their view, Ragna and Cerberus made their way to a couple of crates leaning against the western fortress wall. Ragna guided the horse to a slow stop right in front of them, and dismounted with quiet ease. As the horse nickered and pawed at the grass, Ragna quickly pushed the crates out of the way, revealing a door in the fortress wall. He reached into a pocket and pulled out a key, then used it to unlock the door; when he pushed it open, it led into a dark hallway literally built into the wall of the fortress itself. Without hesitating, he strode inside, passing through the short tunnel in only a minute or two and opening the door on the other side. It led him to the main courtyard of the fortress itself, which was completely vacant since all the soldiers were either marching out the gates or on the ramparts. There hadn't been any news of any surviving Zhuo servants or soldiers, but Ragna didn't bother to worry about them just yet; instead, he made his way to another corner of the courtyard, where a set of stairs was waiting to take him up to the parapets.

Moments later, as the Gi archers prepared another salvo of arrows, Ragna dashed in from the eastern side of the ramparts, bowling most of them over with a powerful dashing punch. The resultant confusion was enough for him to keep surging forward, cutting down the rest of the archers before they could react; when the Gi soldiers on the ground noticed what Ragna was doing, their line faltered long enough for Chou'un to lead her men in a breaking charge that decimated them completely.

When the battlefield finally fell quiet, Ragna disappeared from the ramparts, and after a minute or two, the gates opened wide, letting Chou'un and the Zhuo soldiers into the fortress. A few steps in, Ragna, frowning as usual, stood with some other Zhuo soldiers that looked rather tired and were dressed in fairly shabby clothes. "We'll have to get some of these guys some food and drink later," Ragna said. "Riten starved 'em for information. Literally. Apparently if they'd held out any longer she would've just switched over to breaking them the old-fashioned way."

Chou'un gave one of the men a piercing look; he faltered slightly, but soon met her gaze without flinching back. "Did they give up any information?"

The man shook his head, staring resolutely at her. "We would have died first, my lady. Swallowed our tongues, if it came to that. How else do you think they never found out about the secret passage that Lord Ragna just used to rip them apart?"

Chou'un held her stare a moment more, then chuckled. "Good point. You're a bold one, soldier. When you get better, come and see me. I think my unit could use a man with vigor like that."

Though he was surprised by the warmth in her voice, the soldier nodded, accepting Chou'un's praise. With that done, she turned to Ragna. "Lord Ragna. We should secure the fortress quickly and double back to assist the others. They don't have the strength to last forever."

Ragna rolled his shoulders and neck, then replied with a nod and a loud whistle. After a minute or two, Cerberus came galloping through the gates of the fortress, coming to a stop in front of Ragna with a snort and a calm toss of his mane. Ragna reached up and patted the horse's muzzle fondly, then turned to one of the other ex-prisoners. "Get Cerberus some water and food while we get ourselves together. When we leave, you should be able to make use of whatever supplies Riten left lying around until we get back. Save some in reserve, though. Our resources here will be stretched thin for a while."

The soldier he addressed nodded once, and Ragna walked away from his horse, leaving Chou'un to fall into step beside him.

Ukin was enjoying herself way too much now.

She had only heard stories of Kan'u's skill and prowess with a weapon, and had little idea of how her own techniques would match up to the legendary Black-Haired War God. When Kan'u herself took to the field and moved to clash against Ukin directly, Ukin's first reaction was to steel her nerves and try to focus on staying sharp. Then, Kan'u delivered a one-on-one challenge and charged into Ukin's space like a raging bull. Ukin's caution served her well enough to block the opening attacks, and from there she'd gotten enough confidence to press her own offensive. That soon gave way to a full-on fight that went on and on while Ragna and Chou'un advanced, took back the fortress, and made their way back.

As her Twin Heaven swords clashed in a cross against Kan'u's Green Dragon Blade, Ukin let out an excited laugh, and put as much strength as she could into pushing Kan'u back. All around them, soldiers on both sides watched, knowing instinctively that this was a two-woman stage now, not theirs. "You really are strong, Kan'u. To be honest, I'm scared of what you'll do if I slip up, but a challenge like blood's rushing faster than it ever has before!"

Kan'u simply hummed in response, allowing herself to reflexively draw away from Ukin. She kept her stance, knees bent and ready to spring back into the fray, but her expression was clearly assessing Ukin's movement and pace. "You're stronger than I expected for a young woman of your age. Given some time, you would become quite a threat. If Riten is as strong as you, then the two of you together would doubtlessly be a real danger."

"Too bad you won't get to meet our friend Nagi, then," Ukin replied, sliding into a side-facing stance that put the left side of her body toward Kan'u. She held both blades parallel to the ground and aimed their tips forward, with her right hand higher than her left. "She's better than the two of us put together."

Over the noise of the battlefield, Kan'u heard the stomping of horse hooves drawing closer to them. For a moment, she was seized with doubt and fear, but then, the familiar pattern of Zhuo's war horns eased her heart, and she allowed herself a rare smile as Ukin's brow scrunched in confusion, then horrified understanding.

"I suppose I'll test that for myself soon enough, or perhaps Lord Ragna will," Kan'u replied. "You have two options now, Ukin. Will you surrender? Or will you fight?"

Ukin's face was pale, but Kan'u gave the girl credit—she didn't shrink back at the realization that they'd been outwitted. "You should know how soldiers of Gi operate, Kan'u. Surrender isn't an option."

Kan'u slowly began to circle, letting out a calm sigh as her shoes moved through the short grass. "I expected no less, Ukin. I'm afraid, though, that this is the end."

"If it is, then I'm not going to die without a fight," Ukin retorted bitterly, moving in the opposite direction and tensing her legs to pounce. "Nagi and the Kakou sisters will pay you back in spades for this defeat. You're not strong enough to take on all of Gi and win."

Kan'u didn't reply to this, and after a few more moments of circling, the two warriors charged each other with fierce shouts. Ukin attacked first with a swipe from her right-hand sword, and Kan'u blocked it with ease; Ukin then spun around and slashed downward with her left hand, and followed up with several more attacks. Kan'u continued blocking without much trouble, and after a final strike from her right hand, Ukin stepped to the side and came in with a thrust from her left hand.

The attack caught Kan'u by surprise, and she had no choice but to roll back with it as Ukin's sword sliced up the right side of her body, glancing along her ribcage. Seeing Kan'u's imbalance, Ukin followed up with a step and another slash, this time from the right hand; it also landed, cutting along her breastbone and part of her left cheek. The force of the blow pushed Kan'u back and nearly sent her to her knees, but she dug her back heel into the ground, spun around the Green Dragon Blade, and rushed in with a series of fast, two-handed thrusts. Ukin managed to block and dodge a couple, but at the last moment, left her lower body unguarded after parrying a thrust to the head; with a single jerk of the Green Dragon Blade, Kan'u threw Ukin's arms upward, then spun around and sank a powerful kick to Ukin's unprotected ribcage.

The sound of cracking bones rippled through the air as Ukin hacked up a puff of breath. Kan'u completed the kick, allowing her body to swirl around to face forward once more, then shifted her Green Dragon Blade into her left hand. With her right hand now free, Kan'u took a step forward, then punched Ukin square in the jaw.

Blood flew from Ukin's lips and mouth, and she staggered to the side, swaying like a rag doll before pulling herself back up. Her hands trembled on the grips of her swords for a few moments, then went slack, and she collapsed as they fell to the ground, breathing heavily. Kan'u stared at her for a while, chest heaving as the pain of her injuries settled in, then forced a slower, larger breath into her lungs and turned around, ignoring the gawking of both her men and Ukin's

As expected, Ragna, Chou'un, and their men were back, and they were furiously bearing down on her to clash with Ukin's rudderless army.

The sound of boots shifting made her face forward again, at which point she saw the Gi soldiers rushing toward her with frenzied battle cries.

"Even if you stopped Lady Ukin, we won't be cowed by you!"

"Not even Unchou Kan'u can stand against all of us at once! Let's overwhelm her, boys!"

Kan'u simply allowed herself a confident scoff, and a shake of the head—both to disguise the discomfort racing up and down her face and body from her injuries. She stepped around Ukin's unconscious body and stood a few paces in front of the unconscious Gi general, then settled into her stance once more. "One of you, take Ukin and get her bound up and out of the way," she shouted. "The rest of you, come and stand with me. We're pushing through these headless fools to the line where Riten is fighting against Chouryou and the others! Lord Ragna and Chou'un will be at our backs! This is the time of our counterattack!"

The men raised their voices to answer her as one solid wave of sonic force. "Yes, Lady Kan'u!"

In short order, the first Gi soldier was within striking distance of Kan'u. He raised his sword, swinging it at Kan'u's midsection with a hoarse war cry. Without hesitation, she brought the Green Dragon Blade down in a smooth arc that split the man's armor open from shoulder to crotch, and his skin shortly after that. As the force of the blow knocked him away, Kan'u charged forward and kept on slashing away at anything that approached her while wearing a Gi uniform.

Victory will be ours. We just have to go a little bit farther for it!

Passion is a virtue and a vice. When fanned to its maximum temperature, its flames can make the impossible possible and the mundane awe-inspiring. However, when passion burns too hot, and burns too bright, it can blind you to everything around you—until those things have been consumed by fire and burned to ash themselves.

Proverb 10: Passion is a Virtue and a Vice

So I concerned a few people apparently, with the whole "not updating for two months" thing. Sorry for the scare. I just had a tough time getting this chapter together, but it's finally hit a stopping point that I like.

Sadly, I'm out of gas for another round of Dramatis Personae, so it's going to have to wait until next time. It'll cover the Go faction (or at least those in it that have met Ragna). I am happy to see that people enjoyed it, though.

In case you all hadn't seen it, I did do a few re-edits of earlier chapters to sort of fix a few things. As a side announcement, I'd like to say that I'm in the process of kicking around a way to maybe write some sidestories that cover the skipped time in the timeline. Hopefully short and sweet ones, but they'd cover things like "Ragna and Kayuu beat each other up and finally get over their issues with each other", "Ryuubi and Ragna have a nice lunch together", and "Kan'u and Chouryou's rematch". I doubt they'd be very long, but it's just a little thought that I had while in the middle of this chapter.

Another thing, while I'm here: I noticed that lots of people seem to like some of my other one-shots, particularly Stand + Vampire and The Creator and the Faker. Once Substitute School gets underway again I think I'll poll some thoughts on my profile for a series to finish up (I'm still very much in doubt about Bellflowers and Wagtails at the moment). But we'll see how that goes.

Anyway. Next time, Zhuo advances further to continue the attack on Sou Gi. Proverb 11, "The Endless Drive of Determination Forces Shattered Souls Onward".