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Why China can overtake the US and become a Global Superpower
Why China can overtake the US and become a Global SuperpowerThis is a response to this post by Arly, this post will make more sense if you read their post first.
This is my first effort post I hope you like it.
Epistemological Status: Low but Sincere, I'm not an expert, I spent two days writing this up.
Thesis: I do not believe that China will certainly overtake the US, or even that there is a greater than 50% chance it will happen, however, I believe China will be a great power competitor on parr with the USSR, with the potential to overtake the US.
Why China is not a threatIn this section I summarize Arly argument and provide my interpretations.
I take Arly argument to be primarily about finance. Arguing that, like Japan in the '80s, China's leverage and demographics will prevent it from developing a robust consumer economy. China will be unable to overtake the US economically and thus will not be able to become the dominant power. I have several contentions where I believe we are nowhere near sure of this and Arly historical parallel does not have the predictive power they claim it to have. However, even conceding China's economic inferiority I will argue that China can be a serious threat to US hegemony.
The first section deals with how China has over-leverage itself and like Japan in the '80s will likely suffer long term economic stagnation as a result. A comparison is drawn between the amount of private credit china has taken on compared to other developed nations. China has increased its private credit 20 fold since 2000, compared to doubling in the US and tripling in Europe. By over-leveraging, China is taking out debt to pay citizens to engage in unproductive labor, such as bridges to nowhere and ghost cities. This debt will drag on its economy causing either a financial crisis or the proliferation of zombie companies.
Besides anecdotes about ghost cities, this is supported by China's high Incremental capital-output ratio. Incremental capital-output ratio is investment over GDP growth, if it is high then each unit of investment produces very little GDP growth. A higher Incremental capital-output ratio is not necessarily bad, it is simply the result of high investment because as more investment is available less profitable projects can get funded.
We have been promised a collapse in Chinese markets since I've been paying attention, it has yet to materialize. Obviously, this doesn't mean it won't, never short a bubble and all, but it makes me suspicious. Relevant to this is the fact of China's high gross savings rate of 45%.
China has one of the world highest saving rates, nearly 45% of the nation's income is saved, compared to 27% in Germany, 21% in Canada, 17% in the US, 17% in Portugal.
Nations with comparable saving rates include Ireland, Qatar, UAE, Luxembourg, Republic of Congo(not to be confused with the larger Democratic Republic of Congo). These fall into 2 categories: Oil exporters with large sovereign wealth funds Qatar, UAE, ROC, and foreign corporate tax havens Ireland, Luxembourg. The Soviet Union likely had a similar savings rate reaching 52% in 1990, however, this was the result of widespread shortages related to the collapse of its command and control economy. Japan was not comparable to China, at the start of the 70s Japan had gross national savings of only 25% and it only decreased through the 80s.
Arly makes it seem that Japan grew too fast and entered a bubble due to over-borrowing however if you overlay Arly graph of Japanese private credit with Japanese GDP growth we see that credit did not start to expand rapidly until 1985. Japanese growth began to stall drastically in 1988. The dramatic growth experienced by Japan was not a result of debt, however, Japan tried to extend its period of rapid growth by assuming large debts.
How did Japan do this while reducing national savings, the central bank imposed credit growth quotas on national banks via window guidance. This effectively led to continuous monetary expansion disconnected from the underlying reserves. This did not affect national savings and thus was structurally different from how China has achieved its credit expansion.
In fact, China can not engage window guidance or traditional monetary expansion. In economics, there exists something we call the impossible trinity in which a nation can control 2 of the following 3: capital flows, exchange rate, and monetary policy. China has chosen to control its exchange rate and engage in capital controls. Thus they have attempted to generate novel and awkward methods to drive credit creation.
To achieve China's credit expansion the Communist party artificially depresses wages allowing higher profits. These profits are owned by either institutions or the ultra-wealthy. Both consume a far smaller percentage of their income in comparison to the working and middle classes. In addition, capital controls force this wealth to be invested in China or on Chinese controlled projects. Yes, a significant amount finds its way abroad but far more would without China's capital controls. This gives China's financial sector the monetary base to provide far more leverage to projects of questionable productivity.
This is why China has been able to continue its debt-driven expansion longer than Japan, by relying on depressed consumption rather than central bank purchases. Will it continue indefinitely? Nobody knows, however, this is structurally different than Japan's asset bubble, it has lasted much longer and we have no reason to believe that it is not indefinitely sustainable. Ultimately this is not relevant to my main argument as I will argue that even an economically crippled China is a serious threat.
Arly demographic argument sounds as follows. China has a sharply aging population. As more people age out of the workforce they consume less. Thus, as domestic consumption shrinks, larger sections of the Chinese economy must become export-oriented. This dooms any attempt for the Chinese to develop a robust consumer economy and leaves them dependent on international trade for economic growth. Arly shows several counties that have similar demographic profiles and how they are export-oriented economies.
I dislike how Arly structured their rendition of this argument, they claimed that people engage in more saving but
This is contradicted by life-cycle and permanent income theories, however, while providing value these theories are contradicted by numerous empirical studies and by just looking at BLS data 1 2 3.
A cursory glance some charts shows the aging of Japan seems roughly correlated with the percent export industries. This does not correspond to a current account surplus which I at first assumed it would.
However correlation does not imply causation and Japan is a sample size of 1, I can't find anything on the internet that supports this claim. Arly used the fact that savings increase in aging populations but, on the contrary, savings actually fall because retires spend down savings. The above link also claims that aging economies should experience current account declines. This claims that the aging populations of East Asia are opportunities for US exporters as retirees spend down savings on imports. None of these point to aging populations leading to dependence on exports. If there are better arguments I'd be interested in reading them.
If the argument is true china is limited because a great power must be free to act. A large export sector makes the Chinese government beholden to international interests and unfree to pursue its national interests. The US is not dependent on exports or imports and does most of its trade with Canada and Mexico which are staunch allies. This gives the US broad latitude to act. The US has many other advantages, such as the world reserve currency and centrality in International institutions.
I argue that the CCP has demonstrated a willingness to trade growth for national pride and internal control. While slower growth will result in internal descent China is not a democratic or authoritarian state, it is a totalitarian state. Totalitarian states can immiserate their populations for government directives far more than other states. China has the state capacity to eliminate and contain dissenting elements, it can maintain the industries necessary for a 21st-century military without civilian equivalent industries.
History does not repeat, but it does rhymeI'm not a huge fan of historical parallels, the entirety of history informs modernity but nothing is a carbon copy. While obvious, seeing current events as a copy of historical events seeps into analysis that overuses history with insufficient rigor. However, it makes good rhetoric and can help communicate intuitively what may need books to understand deeply. I will make an argument from historical parallels in this section, take it for what it is.
I believe that the correct historical parallel for China is not Japan but Nazi Germany. A large, technologically advanced, debt-saddled, shaky economy ruled by a nationalistic, expansionistic, personality cult.
There exists a common false belief that nazi policy was successful at spurring economic growth after the failures of the Weimar Republic. This is untrue, the average living standard of German families fell during their control pre-war. Partly this is the result of propaganda, however, they did succeed in reducing unemployment, and increasing weekly earnings. This was accomplished [primarily] via a deficit-financed military build-up.
Separate from the economic ravages of the First World War and the Great Depression, Germany had a massive industrial capacity. Germany had a large well-educated population, 61 million in 1930. For context, France had only 41 million. As the Nazi Party centralized political control they both stopped being dependent on public goodwill and were more adept at manufacturing it with propaganda. Thus the German economy shifted from a consumer economy to an economy oriented around military production. Throughout the war German living standards fell, this did not weaken the regime.
The German regime managed to disconnect power from the well being of the population, this allowed them to act internationally without caring how it affected their economy. The was one exception to this, oil. Until the Molotov Ribbentrop pact, German war planners were extremely concerned with the lack of oil deposits within axis lands. It could be argued that the invasion of the Soviet Union could not have proceeded without access to the Romanian oil fields. When the wartime economy of the German Reich began collapsing towards the end of the war it was not from financial crashes or the grinding misery of the population, it was because allies were destroying factories and resource extraction facilities. The German war economy continued to its high output of r&d because research centers were not targeted by allied bombing. Germans were the only power to use jet aircraft in the Second World War, and the V2 rockets were not replicated by the allied powers.
Arly and many others contend that major powers must have a strong economy to support power projections. This is an old Anglo-American fallacy, repeated about every global competitor since the Kaiser. Germany was defeated twice by men on the field of battle. The Soviet Union collapsed when political liberalization and democratization showed everyone hated the regime. The Soviet Union did not need to liberalize, they could have become a massive North Korea and we would still be in a nuclear standoff with them.
If the CCP manages to disconnect their political power from popular support China only needs industrial capacity and technological strength in certain relevant arias. The Chinese government understands this. This is why they are pushing so hard to create their dystopian surveillance state and investing in unprofitable port infrastructure. They are not completely disconnected from popular support yet, the genocide in Xinjiang is absorbing a large amount of state capacity at the moment. But when they do they will have a massive highly educated population they can dedicate to military and paramilitary operations. Just like the 3rd Reich, they will possess the capacity to surpass the established powers.
Perhaps I have focused too much on the military aspect of being a world power, perhaps in the modern world soft power is more important. I believe that the same arguments around the production of military equipment apply to soft power. Paying for allies, production of propaganda, technical advisors can all be produced by dedicated programs. China will be at a disadvantage if they need to produce these with widespread immiseration but it is well within the range of possibilities.
Some people believe the axis could not have won the Second World War, I disagree. If Germany had not invaded the USSR or the Soviet government had collapsed like the tsar the allies did not have the stomach to absorb the millions of casualties that invading mainland Europe would have taken. Just look at the size of the battles on the eastern front. Even as the allies marched through France the majority of the, now wrecked, German army was deployed against the Soviets. But that's a different post.
China is not 1980's Japan. China isn't exactly anything we have seen but it is useful to compare it to Nazi Germany. The CCP is creating a totalitarian state where government power is disconnected from the popular well being. A large well-educated population can be directed to military and technological efforts and place the CCP on equal footing as the US regardless of economic contraction or the suffering of the Chinese people. This is comparable to the 3rd Reich that engaged in similar policies. While Nazi Germany lost world war 2 it was, by any reasonable definition, a peer competitor. We should not underestimate the CCP, they have the potential to surpass the US.
ConclusionI have presented counterpoints against Arly arguments that china cannot sustain growth. China has financed its growth via different mechanisms than Japan did and will not necessarily follow the same path. While old people do consume less, aging nations have lower savings than the equivalent younger nation. I was unable to find literature that supported Arly claims about aging nations being forced to develop export sectors.
I do believe that the balance of probabilities is on the side of China heading towards some sort of long term economic weakness. Most likely from having to support an aging population with either a social safety net or with informal transfers from children to parents. I think the Chinese baking system will likely create and has created zombie companies but we don't know this yet. Even if China were to enter stagnation at the GDP per capita of Japan their economy would be double the size of the US economy(40 trillion USD). China is not doomed to economic weakness versus the US.
Even if China is economically weak compared to the US they can still be a peer threat because they are a totalitarian state. Totalitarian states can sacrifice the well being of their population and orient large sections of their economy to great power competition whatever form it may take. This allows the CCP to engage far above its economic weight in international competition.
The Cryopod to Hell 254: Shady Skulduggery
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Just outside of Hero City, on its western border.
Four Shades, agents of the Devil Emperor, Yama, crawl through the darkness of the night toward the humans' most precious and heavily defended territory. As they zip past the forest on Hero City's western border, they arrive at the three-hundred-foot-high cliffs that lead to the buildings on the city's limits.
Malice, Demise, Vicious, and Greed all move as one, their bodies blending together in the night-time gloom.
"Let's start at the southern edge," the leader, Malice, says. She rubs her shadowy hands together and licks her lips. "I haven't been here before, but our intelligence says there are a bunch of humans holed up under Bahamut's pyramids. I bet we can find many pretty little girls for Master Yama."
Demise, the most powerful of the Shades, nods gruffly. "The Hero's daughter. We must find her first."
"Don't be a spoilsport!" Vicious yells. The most bizarre of the four Shades shifts her shape into a skinny little goblin with melting flesh. "I'm here to have fun. Fun, dammit! Don't think you can push me around! I'm gonna cut apart some men; make 'em scream!! Ehehehe!!"
"No," Greed says, her keen eyes sweeping the cliffs above. "We have to look for the child first. Once we find her, you can fool around all you want. I'll go with Demise. Vicious, you follow Malice and do as she says. Don't screw around, for once. You know what Master Yama will do to us if you mess things up like last time."
Vicious hesitates. She morphs back into her shadow body and slithers toward Greed to poke her shadowy forehead. "Tch! You're a boring sack of potatoes! That's why Master Yama likes me better! I'm a lot more fun in the sack, you dopey-brained bimbo! Nyahahaha!!"
Greed backhands Vicious, smacking the cackling Shade into the darkness. The attack doesn't even faze Vicious, as she immediately explodes into smoke and reforms her body. "Hahaha! Did I touch a nerve?!"
"Shut your mouth, idiot," Greed snarls. "I don't have time for your stupidity. Demise! Let's go!"
Without another word, Greed and Demise zip away, their bodies traveling through the darkness like fish in the sea.
Malice grabs Vicious by the ear. "You'd better pay attention, idiot! I don't like Master Yama's younger toys. You're all too damned hyper and eager to please! Run your mouth around me, and I'll show you how nasty I can be! Got it?!"
Malice's grip somehow holds Vicious taut, preventing her from transforming into dark smoke and escaping. Faced with this cruel punishment, Vicious calms down and whimpers. "I-I'm sorry, Malice! Really sorry! I'll be good, I promise!"
"Damn right, you will," Malice growls. She throws Vicious to the ground like a sack of rocks. "Now, follow me. We're going to pick off as many cute little girls for Master Yama as we can. Do not leave even one scar on their bodies, understand?! Master Yama likes his harem young, pristine, and tight! Don't make me repeat myself."
Vicious ducks her head under the ruthlessness in Vicious' voice. "W-what if all we find are men and old women?"
"I don't care," Malice answers. "Kill them, torture them, whatever you want. A few measly fleshbag lives won't mean anything to me. But like Greed said, we're not here to have fun. We're here to nab the Hero's wife and daughter!"
Greed's excitement increases at the thought of torture being on the table. "I see! But how will we know what those two look like?"
"I've seen a few pictures of the Hero's wife," Malice casually answers. "As for the little girl, look for blond hair and blue eyes. She'll be about six years old. If you see a child fitting that description, just grab her! Better to be safe than sorry!"
"Is that why we're going to the Pyramids?" Vicious asks.
"That's right. A few demon scouts mentioned the humans built a shelter for the women, children, and the elderly there. I'll bet the kid we're looking for is inside."
"Ooooh! Well, let's go, then! We have to make Master Yama happy! Ehehehe!!"
Malice nods. A moment later, she and Vicious flicker away, traveling toward the southern section of the city.
Little do the four Shades know, but not far from where they just stood, the Hero's daughter is hard at work helping her aunt Samantha heal injured soldiers inside the Hero City General Hospital. The building rests at the Western edge of the city, not far above the Shades' meeting location.
Having inadvertently skipped past their quarry, the Shades travel toward the heavily fortified safe zone at the southern end of Hero City. There, deep beneath the Pyramids, inside several gigantic, hollowed out chambers, more than five hundred thousand women, children, and elderly humans and monsters sit at tables and on the floor. They wring their hands together while watching various screens around the underground interior that display the scenes of battle some ten or so miles from Hero City's borders.
The walls, ceiling, and floors of the underground chambers appear as a golden-brown hue, the room's color formed due to the rocks and sand reinforcing the interior. Along with the ancient Egyptian engravings on the walls, hundreds of electrical lights and television monitors give the hideaway an odd mixture of ancient and advanced technology, mixing modern decor with classical designs.
Amidst the huddling citizens, hundreds of T-REX-wearing guards patrol back and forth, keeping their eyes peeled for any disturbances. They focus on the entrances and exits, making sure to have their guns ready at a moment's notice in case any demons come bursting into the safe zones. With Burrowers and Warpers having already made planetfall, the guards can't help but feel nervous. For all they know, at any moment, the ground might explode and demons could start pouring in.
Unseen by the humans, Malice and Vicious silently and stealthily slip into the bunker, keeping as far from the bright lights as possible. The two of them skulk around the much darker interior edges, behind random obstructions that provide cover. The Shades frown in dismay as they realize the overwhelming majority of their prey have chosen to sit in the light-blanketed areas while waiting for the results of the war on the surface.
As beings comprised of darkness, neither of the Shades can step into even the most dimly-lit area without feeling their bodies start to decay. Let alone the scorchingly-lit sections directly below or adjacent to lamps and ceiling bulbs, even the places where the light barely illuminates anything still causes the two invaders to shrink back reflexively.
[Damn,] Vicious hisses, her voice transmitting to Malice telepathically. [These fleshbags aren't as stupid as we thought! Only a few of them are close enough for us to grab, and they're all old and ugly. Sheesh. We won't be able to get any good toys for Master Yama at this rate!]
[For now,] Malice answers, her tone neutral. [That could change, though. Let's hide behind those barrels over there, next to that doorway. It leads to a woman's bathroom. That's where the females go to piss and shit.]
[Ooooh, smart!] Vicious says, her eyes lighting up with delight. [If we wait a while, we'll surely nab a few stragglers!]
[Perhaps, but we can't just faff about. We're on a time limit. We need to find the Hero's daughter before daylight arrives, or else getting back to the warpgate will prove quite tricky...]
Malice glances around the room. Her eyes fall on the many different lights preventing her advances.
Hmm. If I could smash those bulbs and engulf this lair in darkness... hehe... these humans wouldn't stand a chance. Too bad, it'll take me a bit of effort to shatter more than five hundred lights, even if I throw a bunch of rocks at the speed of sound. Such a move would definitely alert the guards, too. Hmm... perhaps I can cut the power...
While the leader of the Shades muses over possible strategies, Vicious keeps her eyes peeled. Suddenly, she grabs Malice. [Kss! Look, sister! A little girl! She's heading for the bathroom!]
Hearing the younger Shades' cry of excitement, Malice nods. [Yes, good. Grab the girl and place her in your 'shadow world.' The more you can nab, the better. Now, be quiet, so I can think.]
Malice returns to her ruminations, while Vicious rubs her claws together with glee. A small child, perhaps six years old, toddles toward the bathroom, all by her lonesome. Her brown hair and pigtails sway up and down as she runs quickly.
"Nnn! Can't hold it any longer! Gotta go, really bad!"
As the child moves away from the bright light of the main room toward the bathroom illuminated in the distance, she crosses through a small in-between area where the light is so faint that it almost disappears. In those twenty or so feet, a strange, creepy, crawling sensation washes over her back.
Before the little girl can react, a pair of shadowy arms leaps out of the darkness from behind her, swings around her front, and grabs her by the mouth.
"Huh? Eugh?! Mmmph!"
The little girl barely lets out a squeak of fright. She tries to tug at the horribly scary hand grabbing her mouth, but before she can react, Vicious drags her back into the darkness and taps the side of her head. The little girl loses consciousness and slumps in Vicious's grasp, entering a deep sleep she can never hope to wake from.
[Ehehehe!] Vicious laughs. [The stupid little brat wet herself! Oh, this is such great fun! I can't believe you're letting me do this all by myself! I hope more babies come bumbling over!]
[Quiet!] Malice snaps. [Can't you see I'm trying to think? Bloody hell. You 'freshies' are all the same, always eager to do what our master says. That's just great, but don't get in my way! Just keep grabbing young meat for Master Yama.]
Vicious snorts. [Tch. Fine! Your breath smells like poop anyway.]
Without another word, Vicious summons shadow bindings onto the helpless child's arms and legs, then opens a small wormhole of shadow energy and stuffs her into a miniature storage dimension. This rift is one all Shades can access, a small, independent realm where they can place people and objects for safe-keeping, a hellish world of darkness that nobody can escape unless the Shades release them intentionally.
[Hee-hee! Ooh, what a delight! Master Yama probably won't like it if I catch him some little boys, but I bet they'd be fun to torture, too! Ehehe! I'll just grab any kid I see! A lady's gotta have her hobbies, after all!]
Fifteen minutes pass.
Vicious nabs several women, with the vast majority of them exceeding ten years of age, and the oldest being thirty-something. After half a dozen women go missing, including a teenage kobold, some of the other people in the bunker start to notice something is amiss. Whispered conversations go around the room, making a few T-REX-wearing soldiers come trotting over, their weapons held at the ready.
"Yes, my daughter went to the bathroom about fifteen minutes ago," A young mother says, as she follows the soldiers. "Her name is Emily. I started looking for her when she didn't come back after five minutes, but I couldn't find her! I'm sorry to be a bother, but I can't let my little girl run around down here. It's not safe!"
"Don't worry, ma'am," One of the soldiers, a woman, answers. "I'm a mother, too. I'll find your little girl."
The other soldier, a male, turns to the mother. "What does Emily look like? I can transmit her information to the other soldiers in this area. Maybe they've seen her."
The mother meets the faceless soldier's gaze. "Um, she's six years old, brown hair, Citizen ID 2A-11754. You might have her in your records."
"Let me check," The man answers. After a few moments, he tilts his head toward the ceiling ever so slightly. "Yeah. I've got her school ID right here. Cute kid. I'll transmit her photo to the other squads."
The mother and two soldiers stop not far from the barrels Vicious and Malice are hiding behind. However, the Shades don't worry about being spotted. Their ability to blend into the shadows makes them impossible to spot.
[Tch. The humans caught on pretty quickly,] Vicious mutters. [Hey, Malice! What should we do now? Wanna find another spot to nab some brats?]
Malice frowns. [No. I want to take out the lights. If we do that, these humans will be like sheep to the slaughter. Grabbing a few random females isn't worth my time, not one bit. I need to get closer to the middle to see if the Hero's daughter is in here. Oh! I just thought of something! I bet there's a control panel hidden somewhere. I used to be a human before Master Yama 'converted' me, so I know all sorts of things a freshy like you never will.]
Vicious tilts her head toward Malice. [You used to be a stinking fleshbag?! Eww, gross! Haha, no wonder you're such a softie! Kekeke! I used to be a pureblooded demon girl, which is why Master Yama likes me more than you!]
[Idiot,] Vicious mutters. [You're young now, but you won't always be. Master Yama will get tired of you eventually and move on to juicier morsels. Don't think you're special just because your face is cute!]
[Speaking from experience, grandma?] Vicious taunts. [Kekeke! All old and dried up! No wonder Master Yama doesn't touch you!]
[Tch. Master Yama likes me just fine. He values my brains over my looks. That's why he made me the leader! Unlike you, I'll always be useful to him. Now, shut up, and follow me! We're going to flip a few switches down here and start attacking the humans while they're distracted!]
Vicious laughs uproariously. [Oh, yes, 'great leader,' nyahahaha! Do lead the way, big-brain-lady!]
The two soldiers standing nearby happen to turn away from the doors just in time for their T-REX's to pick up an anomaly. The sensors in their suits detect a flash of movement in the darkness, making both of the guards swivel on their heels toward the Shades.
"Who's there?! Halt!"
The moment the human commandos turn their heads, their helmet-mounted lights activate, flooding the darkness with scorching brightness. Malice and Vicious get caught unawares, screaming in agony as the unexpected luminous radiance blasts their shadow-imbued bodies. They dart away as quickly as possible, screeching at the top of their lungs. "Aaargh!!"
The two commandos jump in alarm. The female guard immediately activates her internal suit transmitters. "Shit! Shadow-walkers! All teams, this is Private Emma Schmidt; we have hostiles within the evacuation zone! I repeat, multiple hostiles detected! I have confirmed multiple Shadow-Walkers inside the southern end of the Third Pyramid Bunker! In pursuit now!"
Emma and her companion quickly dart forward, intending to chase after Vicious and Malice. However, the two Shades zip away at incredible speeds and slip into a dark enclave, vanishing from sight. By the time both commandos catch up, their enemies have already made a clean getaway.
"Patrol, this is Commander Skarde," A voice says, transmitting over their intercoms. "I'm dispatching five hundred trackers to your position. Follow the hostiles. Confirm their numbers and fighting capability. Do not let them escape."
Emma curses. "Shit. I lost them! David, did you see where they went?"
The male commando beside her scowls angrily behind his mask. "No. I didn't think shadow-walkers could move that fast! By the time I saw them, they'd already disappeared. If it wasn't for Centurion detecting their movements, I'd never have seen them in the first place."
"Shadow-walkers are weak to light," Emma says. "That's why they were skulking around in the shadows. HQ, this is Private Schmidt again. I lost the targets. Last I saw, they traveled somewhere north of my current position."
"Acknowledged," comes the reply from HQ. Elder Skarde pauses for a moment before switching to a wide-range frequency. "Attention, all city defense troopers. We've detected the presence of an unknown quantity of shadow-walkers within the Environmental Shield's borders. Order every citizen to turn on as many lights as they can and flood the city. Don't let anyone leave the well-lit areas until we've exterminated these invaders. I want tripled patrols around the clock for the next eight hours. Gold and Silver squads one through seven, I want you traveling in pairs to execute a three-step spiral search pattern. Encircle the city and work your way inwards. Do not allow these demonic invaders to escape our grasp! Commander Skarde out."
Half a mile from the Third Pyramid, Vicious and Malice emerge into the darkness of the night and hide in some bushes, only to fall to the ground, writhing in pain.
"Aaargh!" Vicious groans. "Burns! The light burns like fire! Ah, those damned fleshbags! How dare they hurt my beautiful body?!"
Malice controls her pain with practiced experience. Having suffered damage from light countless times during her 100,000+ years alive, she has long since learned to grit her teeth and swallow the pain. "Tch! It's all your fault, you... you damned imbecile! You got too grabby with those girls and drew attention to us! Damn! Now we can't go back. The humans are sure to have locked the bunker down."
Vicious pulls herself to her feet and meekly assumes a shadowy, demonic figure, with two long horns sticking out of her head. "D-don't point the finger at me! How was I supposed to know those metal-wearing fleshies would spot us?! Nobody ever has before!"
"Human armor is always special," Malice explains. "Back during the Energy Wars, the humans had all kinds of crazy gadgets. I even used a few before Master Yama took me in. I don't know how these new armor systems work, but it's clear the soldiers can somehow see us, even in the dark. Now that we've alerted them, finding the little girl is going to be that much harder! Let's keep looking for an hour or two, then return to the meeting location. Maybe Greed and Demise had better luck."
Vicious grumbles inaudibly under her breath about how unfairly Malice always treats her, but Malice just ignores her grumbling. After absorbing enough darkness to heal themselves, the two Shades dart away once again, traveling around to search the city, all while avoiding the increased human patrols.
Two hours later, both Shades return to the meeting location at the base of the cliff, just off Hero City's west side. When they arrive, they find Greed and Demise waiting for them.
"Cripes! What took you so long?" Greed asks. "We found the girl!"
"You did?!" Malice gasps. "Where? Did you nab the little brat? What about her mother?"
"We don't have her, not yet," Greed says. "I thought about going in with just me and Demise, but we didn't dare. The little girl isn't with her mother. Phoebe Hiro is still somewhere at the battlefront. But her daughter is right here! She's in the hospital just above us!"
Greed points her finger toward the cliff a few hundred feet above their heads. Malice follows her finger and scowls. "What?! The hospital? And we wasted all that time, too! You should have just grabbed the kid and scrammed!"
"We couldn't," Greed says. "Because the girl has a protector. She's not alone! You won't believe who's with her!"
Malice scowls. "Who? Just tell me! Stop wasting time!"
"It's Belial! The former Second Emperor! She's in the hospital healing humans! We sensed her aura when we got close. That's how we found the girl. If we try to grab her, Belial will detect us. We all have to work together to overpower the succubus!"
Malice's anger and annoyance subsides. She falls silent for more than a minute, contemplating Greed's words.
"Belial. The Second Emperor. Damn. Of all the rotten luck, for her to be here and not at the battlefield. Nobody's seen the demon who took over the First Emperor's position after Satan's death, so that technically means Belial is the strongest demon in the First Hell. We mere Shades aren't nearly strong enough to take her on. Only Master Yama himself could ever be her opponent."
Vicious frowns. "Huh? What do you mean? We're Shades! Belial can't touch us! She's a physical fighter! Beelzebub is way more dangerous than her, what with his flames and all!"
Malice glances at Vicious, then at Greed. "You're too young, Vicious. You haven't seen Belial fight before. She's scary when she's angry. In terms of physical strength, not even Bael or Barbatos is her equal. She's stronger than all of the Hidden Emperors too. Most demons don't know this, but Belial can project low-level energy fields. They aren't versatile, but because of her vast mana reserves, they're insanely strong. If we get too close, she can rip us right out of the darkness and crush our Dark Cores to bits. We'll have to keep away from her and try to slow her down if we want to grab the Hero's daughter."
Demise, having kept silent the whole time, pounds her chest. "I will fight Belial. Malice, you join me and Greed. Vicious will capture the girl."
"Hmm," Malice grunts. "You're definitely the strongest Shade, but you're no match for Belial. You only have the strength of an Ascended Orc. That's not nearly enough to contend with the Second Emperor."
"That does not matter," Demise replies. "I will fight. You shall slow Belial down. We must follow Master Yama's orders. He wants the child. We must give him the child."
"Fine, we'll do it your way," Malice says. After considering her options, she realizes she doesn't have much of a choice. "Vicious. I'll have to rely on you. If I work together with Greed and Demise, the three of us might be able to stall Belial for a bit. You will have to grab the child and run. We'll follow you right afterward."
"Assuming Belial doesn't kill us, that is," Greed adds, annoyance in her voice. "Damn. Never thought I'd have to face death at the hands of an Emperor. This is not how I wanted to go out!"
"We will prevail because we must," Demise says, her intimidating voice somehow reassuring Greed. "Do not lose heart. Belial is strong, but so am I. If I must die, then I shall do so in battle."
Greed sighs. "Most of us just want to pick off the juicy parts of the steak, not choke on the bone. In comparison, you're a damned battle-freak."
"Many thanks for the compliment," Demise says, turning to look at the cliffs above. "Daylight approaches. We must hurry."
Greed doesn't point out that her words weren't complimentary. She merely groans and falls into position behind Demise. "Vicious, Malice, just follow us. We took a peek at the hospital's halls. There are plenty of rooms with the lights off. We'll sneak in through a window and make our way toward the Second Emperor. If we're lucky, the child will wander away at an opportune moment."
"If we don't have to risk our necks, that would be for the best," Malice says with a nod. "I'll die for Master Yama if he gives the command... but that's only 'if.' No reason to throw myself away for one of his casual whims."
Vicious cracks a sinister smile. "Hehehe! This is getting interesting! I hope the little girl is as Grade-A as Master Yama likes! It'd be a shame if she was some ugly, buck-toothed brat."
"Yeah, that would be a shame indeed," Greed mutters.
"Alright, let's go!" Malice hisses. "Keep low, and watch out for patrolling humans!"
All of the other Shades nod in unison. "Yes!"