Four

Dragon in the Shallows
a DW5 Alternate Reality ‘fic by Dot


IV. A War on Three Fronts


Zhao Yün fought a losing battle with nerves as the remaining Wei forces approached the Hua Rong paths. Whether or not Guan Yü was in on Zhuge Liang’s plans, Zhao Yün would still be in for the toughest fight of his life.

He lent an arm to Cao Cao as the older man staggered to a stop. Cao Cao had been quite reluctant to give his trust─for good reason─but as the troops continued to diminish he had little choice but to put his life in the Little Dragon’s hands.

The temptation to put a spear through that murderer’s back was almost overwhelming. Yet he stayed his hand, for he remembered Zhuge Liang’s words.

“Should Wei fall now, the land would surely erupt into chaos and the Sun-Liu alliance shatter. Cao Cao must live and present Shu and Wu with a common enemy until such a time that Shu can unite the land.”

He leaped to his feet as he heard the familiar roar. Time to set the bait for the big fish.

***

To his slight surprise, Guan Yü discovered he had little need to hold back as he sparred against Zhao Yün. Truly Zilong has the ferocity of a tiger, on par with any of Brother’s most valued generals, he marveled, exchanging a flurry of blows.

“Yünchang!” A somewhat tearful Cao Cao called to him, hiding behind what was left of his men. “Have you already forgotten the kindness I showered upon you?”

Guan Yü sneered. “The only gifts I accepted were this robe and Red Hare, and I have more than paid for those with the slayings of Yan Liang and Wen Chou.”

“What of the generals you slew at the five gates, then?” Rebuked the other. “You owe me something for that, don’t you think?”

Guan Yü stabbed the blunt end of his halberd towards Zhao Yün, who ducked under it and charged forward. “I told them to move out of the way or be killed. They chose death.”

Cao Cao must have been driven to the depths of desperation, for he began to cry in earnest. “Would you murder a man Xüande considers to be his own flesh and blood and strike down a defenseless man as well?”

That gave Guan Yü pause. While he wasn’t trying to do Zhao Yün any real harm, their fight had escalated to levels that were starting to frighten anyone else watching. He brought his armguard up to block Zhao Yün’s jab and allowed himself to be pushed back.

Zhao Yün remained in front of Cao Cao, weapon at the ready.

Guan Yü lowered his blade, turning askance to show that he intended to let them pass. A deep sigh escaped his lips. “Fly, you fools.”

***

“No! No, no, and a thousand times no!”

Zhou Yü had a feeling that if he were not still recovering from his injuries received at the Nanjün campaign, the feisty young princess of Wu would be pounding on him with her fists. “The Imperial Uncle is a worthy match, dear sister. Don’t be so hasty in refusing him.”

Sun Shang Xiang snorted in a manner most unbecoming of a lady. “I’m not stupid. You just want to use me as a pawn to get Jing.”

“Yes, I’ve considered that option,” Zhou Yü confessed. “But if you and Xüande can really work out, then the Sun-Liu alliance becomes that much stronger, and we might not ever need to go to war over those cities.”

The cities your father had paid his life for, was the unspoken addendum. Her eyes went to the floor. “I suppose─it’d be up to Mother to make the final decision anyway.”

“See? That wasn’t so hard now, was it?” Zhou Yü patted Lady Sun on the head, a motion that would always garner her half-hearted protests that she was not a child.

She swatted his hand away, coloring pink. “You’d better not pinch any pennies on my wedding.”

“It’ll be the most lavish ceremony you’ve ever seen,” he promised her. “After all, it is the hand of the Tiger’s Daughter that will be given in marriage.”

***

Zhang Liao hated diplomacy. He preferred to let his blade do all the talking, but if the battle dragged on much further he would lose what slim advantage the smaller Wei forces had. He could not afford to lose He Fei, not with Wu already occupying Nanjün, the Ma family causing trouble for his Lord, or Shu expanding into the west.

He found himself wondering how Zhao Yün was doing. He appreciated every reinforcement that came his way, but he also wished he had the general who almost fought his way through Chang Ban and went toe to toe with Guan Yü after the debacle at Chi Bi.

Taishi Ci rode up to Zhang Liao as he approached the enemy camp. “Halt and state your business!”

Zhang Liao almost grimaced, remembering the other man’s brutal use of his twin rods. “I have a proposal to offer your Lord.”

Taishi Ci raised an eyebrow, giving the lone Zhang Liao an unimpressed once-over. Then he shrugged. “All right, if you want to waste your time suing for peace, that’s not my business.” He turned back towards the tents. “Follow me.”

***

“The one wearing red is Cao Cao!”

Cao Cao fumbled with his cape, casting it aside as he dug his spurs into his steed. Why couldn’t the damn horse gallop any faster?

All too soon Ma Chao was in sight again, and shouted a new command to his troops: “The long-beard is Cao Cao!”

No point in being vain now. He drew his sword and, muttering curses on Mao Chao the entire time, sawed through the thick strands of his facial hair.

A third time the cry came up behind him: “The short-beard is Cao Cao!”

Did the heavens despise him that much? Was this payback for his relentless chase of Liu Bei?

Was he going to die here?

That particular question was answered when the loud ring of clashing spears sounded, and all Cao Cao could do was stare in open surprise as Zhao Yün came to his rescue yet again.

***

Kongming better have some plan to get me out of this, Zhao Yün thought as he defended himself against Ma Chao’s furious assaults. Mengqi definitely has what it takes to kill me. He parried a blow, sidestepping to cushion the impact and winced when he felt his arm go numb. Several times over, as a matter of fact.

“Prime Minister! Hang on, we’re coming!”

Zhao Yün never thought he would ever be happy to see Wei banners appear over the horizon; yet there they flew, and he had to thank whatever gods who might have been listening for the excellent timing. He redoubled his efforts, drawing Ma Chao towards the reinforcements. Ma Chao, being no dummy himself, saw that he was about to become surrounded and made a break for it.

The menace driven off, Cao Cao’s officer’s surrounded their Lord and inquired as to his safety. The man himself, however, was looking at Zhao Yün with concern. He gasped, pointing at Zhao Yün’s side. “Zilong, you’re bleeding!”

Zhao Yün looked down and saw a dark red stain seeping through. “Huh.” He was so focused on the battle that he had not noticed at all. “So I am.”

Then he lost strength in his legs, dropping in an undignified heap on the ground.


Unnecessarily Long and Tiresome Authoress’ Notes:
Style names guide, in order of appearance –
Mengqi = Ma Chao
As far as Zhou Yü addressing Sun Shang Xiang in a sisterly manner, I figure that wouldn’t be too out of character because of his honorary brotherhood with Sun Ce, and also to sweet talk her into agreeing to marriage with Liu Bei.
I used Romance of the Three Kingdom’s chronology for the battle of He Fei, but I might let Wei and Wu have a rematch later; that remains undecided for the moment. Also, while Romance attributes the “single-blade meet” to Guan Yü, Lu Su was the one who actually pulled that off. However, since I’m denying Wei a decisive victory at He Fei, I’m misappropriating it to Zhang Liao instead.
Ma Chao chasing the hell out of Cao Cao is lifted straight out of Romance and a cutscene that I wish was included in DW5, but I guess Koei figured that Chi Bi was already enough humiliation. (Also way cool: Ma Chao and Zhang Fei’s night battle where they fought three hundred rounds to a draw.)

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