(A/N: Here is the prologue of Tsubasa Reverse, the direct sequel of The Devil King. Leave me comments, or any indication that you have read, especially constructive criticisms. Note that all characters herein are mine, and the entire story is copyrighted and cannot be reproduced in any form without my permission.)
Act Zero - The Promise
"The Alliance! The Alliance is upon us!"
There were screams. People ran, scuttling out of their homes with their scant belongings, huddling their children around them, locking their doors and shutting windows. The streets, once filled with beggars and children playing sticks and stones, were now choking with the press of people trying to either escape the doomed city or to get into the underground shelter the government had provided. It should have been suffocating, but it was not. It was cold, and the overcast day lent the darkness of dusk upon the city. Torches and lamps were blown out for fear of being used to set fire; not that the advancing soldiers of the Alliance would not, but the citizens of Felimgrad wanted to delay the destruction of their homes for as long as possible. Talk pervaded the atmosphere; the once vigorous and carefree tone of the City of Felimgrad was now uptight, panicked. There were moans, nervous laughter, there were babes crying, of mothers explaining to their children; the tension was so palpable it could be cut by a knife.
The drumbeats of the approaching army sounded closer, vibrating across the air, sending tremors through the ground.
The last of Harmonia's battered forces formed up, rank upon rank, on the city square, while those that could be spared held the three gates of the city on the west, south, and east, setting up traps, trenches, wooden pike-barricades, while others walked on the battlements of the city, sprinkling caltrops outside the walls, while still more hunkered down inside towers and fitted arrows through the murder holes. The wind was still; banners and flags were limp. Trebuchets were loaded with stones, boiling oil was poured into great pots that would be upended upon attackers scaling the walls or entering the gates. Spears and blades were sharpened and sheathed, while officers hastily conducted inspection upon their companies. It was not only Felimgrad itself that was bustling with activity; the Royal Barracks just southeast of the Divine Palace, which was set inside a man-made river at the northernmost of the city, was a beehive of energy, the soldiers trading half-hearted jokes as they marched to their formations, wishing their comrades good luck, or stealing one last bite of bread.
It was year 162 of the Winter Age. For two years the Fifteenth Winter War had raged, and yet there was no victorious army that had the right to rule Harmonia. The Conclave, that all-powerful council that administrated the Winter Wars, had already dispatched its own army, the Cruzada, led by the Judges, to break the stalemate, but it was for nothing. Still the Alliance advanced down to the last city of Harmonia: Felimgrad—the capital, seat of the Demeter Throne—like an unstoppable swarm of locusts, and on their trail was nothing but destruction and ruin. Now they were in sight of the city walls, a few leagues away—the country of Harmonia was on a peninsula slanting to the southwest—and only the faithful soldiers of this city stood against them and their quest to rule the nation.
The soldiers gasped at the monstrous size of the Alliance army, composed of all the soldiers of the Outer Kingdoms—thousands upon thousands, hundreds of thousands, of soldiers in mail and sword and spear, thousands of archers both on mounts and on foot, knights clad in shining plate and holding their standards on their shields and banners, warhorses in grim armor as their masters, pikemen, sellswords and all sorts of fighting men were assembled, marching with steady cadence to the low rumble of drums and trumpets. Huge siege towers and rolling catapults were scattered over their formation, huge behemoths that goaded the insect-like footmen around them. And on the vanguard lines marched the gloomy visage of the Deimos, the half-human half-monster abominations that possessed forbidden magic—and who were responsible for the annihilation of Harmonian soldiers that held against the Alliance advance.
"Ready your weapons!" shouted the clear, strong note of the wall commander on the East Gate. Around him on the battlements, soldiers ignited the loads on the defending trebuchets, and packed the scorpions with their massive harpoons. The archers, lined up all along the wall and others hidden inside it, drew arrows and nocked them on their bows. The sky was still darkening.
The Alliance army still advanced. Their trumpets greeted the defenders.
Felimgrad didn't deign answer. More soldiers were sent to reinforce the East Gate, but all of them knew that it was a hopeless battle. Even then, the Alliance's battering rams were set, the scaling ladders were unfolded, and the siege towers were loaded with men. The catapults finally reached firing distance, wedged onto the soft, yielding earth thankfully without any snow, and lit up with fire, the boulders' net covering instantly catching.
Below, at the East Gate itself, entire battalions of Harmonian defenders braced for the last battle of their lives, while sweat and tears stung their eyes. Others clasped the flowers the citizens had given them, knowing that it would be their greatest and most heroic accomplishment yet—to die for their country—while some tested the balance of their swords,twirling them at their sides. Their commanders shouted at them, giving them encouragement for their deaths ahead, as they answered with determined voices, weeping yet exhilarated, banging their shields and blades together. This was the day, they said; the final hour.
"How are we doing?" the Knight Commander, the overall warlord of the Harmonian army—or what was left of it—asked his lieutenant. They were mounted on their powerful black destriers, massive warhorses bred for combat, as they rode toward their formation. The Knight Commander wore red-and-gold plate with his joints exposed for mobility, a flaring red cloak on his shoulders embroidered with the seal of the Royal Panzers, while his horse was barded with lobstered mail much like him. His armor was very light, though. It was thin, but able to withstand at least a glancing blow.
"They have… high morale, my lord," Kera Evergrace, his half-Elf lieutenant, answered hesitantly. Her silver-helmed head, with black feathered wings sprouting from its sides, bobbed uncertainly.
The comely young knight with her braided golden hair looked at him, shamefaced. "My lord?"
"It's all right to be afraid." He smiled, and reached over and patted her on the shoulder. She clasped her commander's arm. "Be afraid once in a while, but know this: the difference between a coward and a brave man is that the coward fears and runs; the brave man fears but meets it."
"I understand, my lord." She nodded.
He withdrew his hand and heaved. "Now tell me. I want the truth."
"We don't have a chance," she said quietly, as they went on towards the formation on the East Gate. The size of the defending force was impressive, but they were severely outnumbered by nearly ten to one. "We have scraped all the able-bodied men we were able to find in the city, as you've told us to, and our reservists are nothing more than pardoned brigands. My lord, we… we are out of hope."
"I see." He shook his head. "We can at least buy time for His Majesty to get out of the city. As long as he's alive, the country lives. We are not yet beaten."
Kera gave him a quizzical, sidelong look. "Do you… pardon me my lord, but do you really believe in his ideals? The king, I mean."
The Knight Commander gazed at her with sympathy and mirth in his eyes, and Kera averted her eyes, blushing. Before she could stammer a reply the knight spoke. "It is not whether I believe him or not, my lady." He fell silent and the noise of the preparations of the defense enveloped them both before he continued. "He is the rightful ruler of Harmonia and I am, in my position, obliged to defend and protect him. We all swore an oath. We will honor it, Kera."
"I… Yes, my lord." She looked down and caressed the side of the neck of her horse. Her captain was right, even though he had evaded the question. Her feelings against the king were unimportant; what mattered was they all had sworn an oath in front of the Vicars of Imrassar and the people of Harmonia, and they were beholden to keep it in the sights of God and men. Kera glanced at her commander and felt her heart beat faster. She had always loved the man, and it almost broke her when he was wedded to the Crown Princess of Harmonia. There were times when he was so close she didn't want anything but to take him in her arms, the Knight Code and the royalty be damned… but she knew it would degrade her in his sight, and it was one thing she wouldn't allow to happen. So she had always been hoping; hoping that one day the Knight Commander would notice that she was a woman.
She was startled from her thoughts when they suddenly stopped and the knight looked up at the darkening sky. Harmonia had always been free from snow and the clouds would only get murky and dim when there was approaching rain. But now, she could feel that there was something evil afoot—there was something wrong, and everybody could sense it.
"It's coming," the Knight Commander said.
"Yes," she replied, not even knowing what it was she was agreeing to, and surveyed what was before her.
The East Gate Atrium was a large, open area, dominated by a large obelisk made of crystal at the very center, and bordered on the left and right by immaculately-carved arcades. Kera remembered making a purchase or two here during peacetime: merchants would once line along and hawk their goods to passersby and visitors. Sighing wistfully, her eyes explored the magnificent facades of buildings surrounding the Atrium, the silent witnesses of when she was brought—dragged—here by slave traders four years ago, only to be rescued by the man she came to love, all the while the kaleidoscope of colors standing mute and merciless. Now what beauty the area had was gone and were instead crammed with grim soldiers, nervous archers and crossbowmen perched atop roofs, window eaves, and every type of elevation that could be afforded; and banners, pennants, and flags lying limp and lifeless on poles borne by ashen carriers. The East Atrium was, if she recalled properly, about a mile across, and another mile from its gatehouse to the inner city walls where they were now exiting.
This was what the Knight Commander and Kera found as they approached on their horses. The street leading downward to the Atrium was now littered with refuse in the chaos earlier where the soldiers had evacuated the civilians to the Labyrinth, an underground network that led to the port town of Mannsted. This was where ships awaited them at the harbors that could ferry them to the allied island nation of Salamea, still blessedly untouched by the carnage. This nation had once aided in this most brutal Winter War yet, but their vaunted navy had been decimated when the Alliance unleashed their ultimate weapons, although still marginally safer compared to Felimgrad, which was facing its imminent destruction.
"My lord commander," said a soldier who bowed before them. "The Alliance sends a message to you."
"Indeed," the Knight Commander said impassively, noting three others behind the man, one of them garbed strangely. "What is it?"
The soldier turned around and motioned for his other comrades. At once the men-at-arms in full battle gear started forward, a man in a soiled black cloak covering his entire body leading between them. His long blond hair fell too neatly around him while his eyes, grey as smoke, held the Knight Commander's gaze steadily and firmly, and his face, clear and as delicate as a maiden, showed no sign of grime or sweat. Yet his cloak was all but clean—what was this man?
"My lord, the Alliance messenger," the soldier from before introduced the stranger.
"I am no… messenger," the person said clearly. His eyes now bore into the Knight Commander's soul.
"Why have you come here, then?" the Knight Commander asked quietly. Kera shifted on her saddle as her mount swayed. There was a strain of wills between them, invisible perhaps but tangible nonetheless; even her horse could feel it. She could already hear sparks flying across them as they stared into one another as if they were dueling with their blades.
"I deliver a warning, general," the man said in an equally deadpan manner. "I know the royal family hides in the palace. Get them out of there, or they will be killed."
The Knight Commander didn't move, but the reactions of the soldiers around the stranger spoke for their lord. Blades were drawn with curses and the two behind the man forced him to his knees in front of their lord's warhorse. He didn't resist, though, and even as Kera's fury was inflamed she repressed it, looking uncertainly at her master. Their destriers were clearly uncomfortable with this, snorting.
"What made you think that, master…?" the Knight Commander prompted politely.
"My name does not matter… my lord." Kera was surprised when the man bowed. "My service extends not only to Harmonia but to the world as well. Please evacuate the royal family from the palace."
"You have such a gall to command us?" Kera hotly interrupted. She wouldn't brook any slight on her master, least of all from a vagabond, or worse, an assassin.
"I am not giving out orders, Lady Kera Evergrace," the man said, still bowed. The half-Elven maiden was dumbstruck at the mention of her name from a stranger, and was silenced further when he continued. "Consider it… a divine will. Harmonia will not survive the attack, but there is hope in the future if you will just heed my warning. Send the royal family away from the palace… that I beg of you."
"My lord, I beg your leave to lop the head off this beggar," the soldier who introduced him asked the Knight Commander. He had drawn his sword and was pressing its edge against the kneeling man's neck.
The Knight Commander just gazed at him.
He held up a hand. "No, I wish to hear what he has to say."
"General, I don't have anything to say. You are running out of time," the blond stranger said. "They will be releasing the first wave of the Deimos to level your defenses. The East Gate will be toppled and its destruction will bury half of your men alive. You will be killed in battle, and Salamea will barely save the remnants of your people. Felimgrad is doomed, great lord… but Harmonia will survive if you hear what it was that I have come here for."
"Are you some kind of prophet, man?" the Knight Commander queried.
"That I am not." There was a note of hesitation on his voice.
"Then how do you know these things?"
"Because… because I was here when it happened."
A scream, high-pitched, frightened and despairing from the topmost towers punctuated the statement. "DEIMOS! The Deimos are COMING!"
Kera snapped her head up as soldiers rushed to their positions, archers on the rooftops trained their bows on the sky, sweating and shaking, while still more others made the sign of Imrassar on their foreheads or cowered under shelters. There was a bustle of panic, of anticipation… of bloodlust and sacrifice, of knowledge that this was one battle they couldn't shy away from, and would die in their futile attempt to protect their country. They knew, Kera thought, mortified, like all of them knew. They were here only to buy time for their citizens to escape—there was no hope of real defense.
As the commotion erupted around them and the stranger was left with the Knight Commander and Kera, trumpets blared and shouts of captains bellowing at their men resounded throughout the Atrium. And finally, a wind blew. Black specks on the sky were coming closer, and more of them than Kera could ever be able to count.
"Why do you help us, stranger?"
"My lord, do you really believe this man?" Kera said disbelievingly. "He has squandered your time enough. Let us be off and marshal our men."
The stranger stood up, facing them. "I was cursed. And I see these things that no man can see. I have seen the calamity that befell this city…
"Crown Princess Cassiel and her father are inside the palace, quivering in fear. Take them to safety. Princess Amitiel is conversing with a boy… the boy will survive, but the Princess must be safeguarded."
"I ask again, stranger." There were cries as the arrows were loosed in the air. There were clinks of metal as the footmen backed a pace, their necks aimed at the sky, and a heartbeat later they could hear the characteristic hissing passage of the arrows as they rent through the wind. The Deimos were almost on them, and there was no time. Felimgrad was finally under attack; the Last Siege had begun.
"My lord, we have to go!" Kera yelled, spurring her horse forward and drawing her two-handed sword from the sheath on her horse's saddlebag. When the Knight Commander did not move she muttered a curse and galloped to the formation, shouting her battle cry, spinning her sword in the air.
"I ask again. Why do you help us?"
The stranger undid the cloak on him and let it fall, and the Knight Commander's eyes took it all in, who the man before him really was—what the man in front of him was. "Because I am here, my lord Caladvor Zethia…
The Knight Commander's jaw dropped. Screams rose and fell around him.
The visitor's grey eyes held him fast, like icicles that spoke both of sorrow and pain. "… to keep the promise I had made, ages ago."
Tsubasa Reverse © 2006 diamonddust08. All rights reserved.