The Empty Knight and the Burning Princess


Chapter Six – Battle in Darkness


His mouth moved, but no sound came out. Zeil raised an eyebrow as he came to the realization that his forceful declaration had, in a way, quite literally fallen upon deaf ears.

Even in the dead of the night, there were bound to be a few different kinds of noises. The rustling of the wind, the gentle breathing of those who were asleep, and the buzzing of the bugs in the surroundings - these were all usually present. It was far more unnatural for there to be no sound at all, and in fact the complete absence of sound had, in a certain way, become a deafening sound of its own.

"I've never seen a power like this before, but it's not something I gotta worry about in a fight. Great for assassinations and sneaking around, though."

While Zeil was busy pondering over the implications of that, his would-be assassin wasted no further time. The dark figure pulled out a second dagger and resumed its assault upon him, intent on stabbing his heart. In response, Zeil loosened his grip on the assassin's right wrist and rolled out of harm's way just in time. The dagger dived through the space he had been occupying mere moments earlier and ripped through the fabric of the mattress, causing tufts of straw to spring into the air.

Zeil's hand darted through the air, snatching his sabre off the bed. His left hand came to a rest on the hilt of his weapon and he drew the sword in one swift stroke. This was usually an action that created a fair amount of noise, but instead it became muted, just like everything else that had occurred over the past minute, the room remained resolutely silent. Zeil glanced to his right and confirmed that Alexis was still fast asleep. It seemed as though this silencing effect wasn't something that only applied to himself. It most likely affected everything within a certain area.

The first thing he had to do was to remove this effect, then.

He curled the fingers on his right hand into a fist. The same tell-tale, dull light erupted from his fist and washed over the room.

"Steal The Soul."

And this time, Zeil found that he was able to hear himself.

The dark figure clicked its tongue, but remained rooted in its original position. Now that the element of surprise had been lost, the assassin did not want to make any rash or obvious moves. Daggers were small weapons that were easily concealed and were thus very suitable for assassination, but there were otherwise several drawbacks to using them. It went without saying that they were severely lacking in range, and that made it difficult for the user to get into a good position to land a killing blow. In comparison, Zeil was wielding a long sabre which was much more suitable for this type of combat. The situation was no longer advantageous, and it was necessary to tread carefully.

"If you're not going to do anything, then I'm just going to do whatever I want. Are you really okay with that?" Zeil thought.

Now that he had managed to absorb the sound cancelling magic that had been laid on the area, his next step was naturally to make use of the opportunity that created.

"Attack! Attack! Help!"

Zeil yelled at the top of his voice. Judging from the broken door, the assassin had been able to act freely because of the sound cancelling magic that had been used. Now that the magic was gone, however, he should be able to force the assassin to escape. At the very least, the employees of the inn would investigate, and no assassin would remain in such a disadvantageous situation.

That should have been the case. Instead, the assassin dashed forward, taking advantage of Zeil's lapse in concentration to close the distance.

"Damn!" Zeil swore mentally as he hurriedly raised his sabre in front of his chest to block. The point of the assassin's dagger clashed against the flat of the blade mere millimetres away from his torso. Zeil next took a quick side-step to the right, neatly dodging the other dagger that had been brought up in an upward thrust. Taking the opportunity for a counter-attack, the swordsman slashed diagonally with his sabre, aiming for the assassin's mid-section.

This first strike was dodged by the assassin, who dropped to the ground, balling up and rolling forward inside Zeil's range yet again. The assassin sprung up with yet another vertical stab, but Zeil saw this coming easily and tilted his head, causing the dagger to once again slice through nothing but air.

"Damn, this is troublesome. This person doesn't pack the punch that Baldus had with his ash magic, but it's so much more difficult to actually hit this damn guy. He's almost as agile as I am," Zeil thought.

And, almost as though it was in response to his thoughts, a voice rose from behind the white-haired swordsman.

"Duck, Gradis."

Zeil grinned and happily obliged, dropping his shoulders as he sank to the ground on one knee.

Whoosh.

His hair rustled as an arrow whizzed over it.

Unfortunately, the assassin had heard the same thing, and had managed to dodge in the same manner, causing the arrow to lodge itself in the wall behind.

But that had been sufficient. It had been a good enough distraction.

"Thanks, Alexis."

For some reason, nobody had come to help despite the commotion that Zeil had created. It was almost as though no one had heard his yells, and Zeil thought that that might indeed be the case. His technique, 'Steal The Soul', had a fairly limited range. It was quite possible that he had not absorbed all of the silencing magic that had been cast on the room, and the surrounding areas were still silenced, preventing the other people in the inn from hearing them.

Even if that was the case, however, he was certain that his ability had removed the magic from the room itself. In other words, there was no way that Alexis could still have been asleep. Zeil had been quite content to remain at a stalemate until Alexis could help him in some way, and that had now come to fruition.

"So he's an archer, huh?" Zeil thought. Alexis's erect form was visible, even through the darkness, and the outline of the bow that he was holding onto was quite visible.

The boy nocked a second arrow and let it fly, but the assassin was equal to it, nimbly dodging the projectile. Zeil, however, was not at all concerned by that. All he needed was some extra time to put his own plan to action, and he had that now.

Whilst the assassin was busy dodging arrows, the swordsman took a large stride over the table, and found what he had been looking for.

"Hey! Watch this!" he shouted.

Acting purely on instinct, the assassin turned to face Zeil, who lit up a match and ran it past the three candles standing on the table. Three spheres of light blossomed at the candle tips. The illumination was not particularly strong, but Zeil had managed to trick the assassin into staring directly into the glare produced by the lighted candles. In other words, it was extremely unlikely that the assassin could still see properly.

And almost as though to prove that theory correct, the assassin blindly jumped to the right, trying to avoid the attack that he knew had to be coming. This proved fruitless, however, as Zeil broke into a run and slammed into him, spearing the assassin with his shoulder. The charge knocked the assassin to the ground, and Zeil placed his sabre square against the assassin's throat.

Alexis lowered his bow and walked over, shielding his eyes from the glare of the candles as he slowly lost his night vision.

"Nice. I'm surprised you could still catch onto him, even if the light was to your back. You've got pretty good eyes to see in this kind of light contrast," the archer commented.

"Ah, yeah. Darkness doesn't really bother me," Zeil replied off-handedly.

"Really? Don't mind if I do this, then."

Still squinting, Alexis took a single candle from the table and brought it up against the assassin's face. The light revealed a small, round face and straight silver hair that brushed against the shoulders. It was a face that undoubtedly belonged to that of a female, but there was one more important thing that Zeil noticed about the assassin.

It was something that had happened earlier in the morning.

Zeil strode past the same girl manning the counter. She appeared as lethargic as ever, droning on in a monotone voice to her two new customers, who were a pair of young girls wearing cloaks. Zeil noticed out of the corner of his eye that the girls were twins.

The white-haired swordsman let a single breath loose. "Oh, goddamn. There's two of them."

Alexis shook his head. "I understand that you're worried about the princess, but there is no need at all to worry about that. We're not her bodyguards for nothing, you know. I'm still incompetent, but Mistress Ena won't have any problems dealing with the other assassin, if there is one. What we should be worried about now is this assassin. She was probably sent by Baldus, after all. It's not a good sign at all that they've managed to track us down here. I would like to question her, but there's no way that she's going to be cooperative, is there?"

"You guys never learned about torture?" Zeil asked. He was still speaking in the same off-handed manner as before, but his eyes looked a little more focused than before.

"No. Honor is a very real matter for the soldiers of Crimtain, you know. Of course, it's one thing to be honorable and another to let it cloud your judgement, but there are some lines that we won't cross. The late king, especially, found such methods abhorrent. At least assassination ends a person's life swiftly with no pain," Alexis replied.

In a strange way, it made some sense. Everyone had their own moral standards. The question was merely how low one would sink.

"Well, what should we do, then? It looks like we have no choice but to kill her."

"That is true, but there is no need to be so hasty, either - "

Alexis stopped dead.

Zeil, too, had noticed the disturbance.

Looking through the doorway that had been exposed by the broken door, it was possible to see a tiny figure making quick, steady progress. It could not have been more than five or six inches high. What was far, far more grave, however, was the object that the figure was propping against its head. Even in the faint glow of the candle, it was possible to identify it by its burning, brilliant lustre. Its red gleam that lit up the area around it was unmistakable.

The Flametongue.

"What the hell is that?" Zeil thought. He observed the figure in spite of himself as it vanished out of sight.

Alexis's eyes widened and he yelled, "What are you doing, Gradis? Can't you see it? It has the Flametongue!"

And with that, the archer sprinted past Zeil and out into the corridor.

At the same time, the assassin took advantage of the distraction to raise one of her daggers. Zeil was able to react in time to block the ensuing strike, but the force of blow was enough to push him backwards. The assassin immediately rose to her feet before ducking under Zeil's horizontal slash. On instinct, the swordsman pursued her, unleashing a flurry of stabs with his sabre. The assassin's eyes had already adjusted to the light by then, of course, but she was still getting pushed back. Even parrying Zeil's blows was not easy for her. There was no comparing the force a sabre could generate against the tiny daggers that she was wielding.

But even then, the assassin was not unduly stressed. Her aim was no longer to assassinate Zeil Gradis. It was clear to her that she could no longer achieve that objective. Instead, she had only one thought on her mind.

To escape.

"Damn! She's trying to run!"

Zeil realized that too late. Each of his attacks pushed her backwards, but due to her position, that also meant that she was getting closer and closer to the window. Once she had gotten close enough, the silver-haired girl did not hesitate whatsoever. She turned tail and took a running jump, crashing through the window.

The swordsman walked over and peered through. Through the darkness, he could see the assassin regaining her posture and fleeing into the night.

He could chase after her. All he had to do was jump down after her, which was something that did not pose a challenge at all for him. But that was not his priority. There was no need at all for him to try and kill that assassin, and in fact he would not gain much from achieving that. His main concern now was the Flametongue. They could not, in any situation, allow the enemy to take it from them. Their situation was already dire enough.

And thus, making up his mind, Zeil sheathed his sabre, and resumed his chase in the direction Alexis and the tiny figure had went.