The Empty Knight and the Burning Princess

Chapter One - The Knight and the Princess

Was she going to die here?


She still had a kingdom to reclaim.

Most people, if they had to choose between whether an event with an extremely low probability should or should not occur, would naturally say that it should not. But here was the real, sensible, perfectly logical, and yet absolutely magical answer - it should not occur most of the time. Which also meant that once in a hundred, thousand, ten thousand, a million times - it could happen. There was always another side to every answer. Gamblers fall to ruin because they rip themselves apart piece by piece, constantly relying on that singular chance to appear. But what if you don't have anything left to lose? What if your only chance was to try? That's easy to answer. You can only try your luck.

And so Her Highness, Princess Alisa Crimtain, ran with all her strength. Even if it was hopeless, even if she was doomed to fail, even if there was nothing before her but despair. She would scream defiance in the face of fate regardless of the odds before her.

Because that was the only way at all left that she could win.

The skies were clear, with not a single cloud in sight, and the sun shone down with a brilliant radiance. All in all, the weather was quite marvellous. Overhead, a flock of grey birds swooped through a sea of unoccupied blue, and the trees that made up the forest rustled their leaves gently in the breeze.

It was a pity that such a fine day had to be marred by violence.

The young man looked down at the two soldiers who had fallen by his feet. He had not held back with his blade, but he could tell from their breathing that they were still alive. Besides, all they had taken was a single wound each.

"Who the hell are you?"

The rest of the soldiers had gathered into a tight cluster, their lances raised and poised to attack at a moment's notice. Quite clearly a defensive formation. At their head was a soldier who was most likely their leader. Unlike the other rank-and-file soldiers, he had chain-mail armour while the rest were clad in leather, and he also had extra equipment in the form of a shield. There was, the young man noticed, a lion imprinted upon the shield. If his memory served him right, that was the emblem of the kingdom of Crimtain, which he was currently in. Not that he cared much about such matters. He simply wandered from place to place, and his location, wherever it may have been, was not much of a concern.

"Zeil Gradis," the young man replied. "You know, isn't it normal to ask for a person's name before attacking him?"

The leader ignored his questions and carried on with his own tack. "I've never heard of a knight, mercenary, or warrior named Zeil Gradis. I've certainly never heard of anyone with your appearance before."

Zeil ran his hand through his locks of white hair. It was indeed rare to find hair of such colour on someone as young as he was, and he knew that his appearance was undeniably striking when his crimson eyes were taken into consideration as well. "That's because I'm not much of a warrior. Besides, I come from a faraway land."

There was no response from the leader this time.

Zeil glanced at the two men on the ground. They had already fallen unconscious, probably due to the blood loss from their wounds. He had been wandering through the forest with no real aim and indeed no real idea of where he was, exactly, when these two armed soldiers sprang upon him. He had cut them down purely in self-defence. Even now, he had no idea why they had attacked him. He was pretty sure that he had not entered any restricted areas, and in any case, even the most dedicated of guards would surely have given a warning first to any intruders.

"You should probably bring these two to some healers soon, really. They're not that badly injured. They'll live if they get some treatment," he said.

Again, there was no response. Not at first. Eventually, the leader replied, "...That...can wait. For now, we'll have to eliminate you."

Zeil clicked his tongue as the soldiers spread out and charged at him from different directions. These were definitely well-trained fighters. He was outnumbered more than twenty to one, and they had chosen to take full advantage of that fact by surrounding him. He knew that even as he dealt with the enemies in front of his eyes, more would circle around to attack him from behind.

And so, he charged ahead as well. That was the best way to foil their strategy. He had to break out of their encirclement before they completely surrounded him. He raised his sabre high into the air and brought it down without hesitation.

He grinned as the soldier he had targeted raised his spear defensively to block his attack, and the clashing of metal on metal came alive once more within the forest.

"You guys are pretty unfriendly!"

"Still running, my princess? You should know that you can never escape from me."

"Perish the thought, Baldus. I'm not going to allow myself to be captured by a sick freak like you."

Alisa Crimtain ran through the forest. What Baldus had said was quite right. Even though she weaved her way through the trees, darting in out and out of clusters of bushes, she was still unable to lose the knight who was keeping pace behind her effortlessly. He was even able to overtake her occasionally, but slowed down to allow her to regain the lead. In other words, he was simply toying with her. But so what if she could not escape? Should she just give up? Why would she?

"Of course, your struggling is quite a pleasant sight, and it would be quite disappointing if I could not see it any longer, but stopping would at least let you regain some of your dignity, Your Highness," Baldus said. The dark-haired knight drew his longsword with a single hand and readied it, poised to strike at any moment. Even then, he continued to follow behind the escaping princess, not allowing her to make any further ground. He seemed completely unencumbered by the ashen, grey-red suit of armour which he wore.

Alisa swiped a few strands of her crimson hair away from her face and continued to run. "My dignity is not nearly as important as my life. And I have no need to show any dignity to the likes of you, who derive pleasure from the suffering of others."

Baldus threw his head back. What the guttural bark that came out from his mouth sounded more like a roar than a laugh. "You're quite a handful, Your Highness! You certainly deserve my respect! If it had been you on the throne, then perhaps this Kingdom would still belong to the Crimtain monarchy."

She growled and gripped tightly on to the ruby concealed in her right hand. "It may yet belong to us in the future."

"Hah! What leads you to make such foolish proclamations? Perhaps it is because you have the Flametongue? It is quite obvious that you cannot use the gem. If you could, I would undoubtedly have been blasted into smithereens by now."

"If I cannot use it, I shall find another who can."

Baldus let out another harsh laugh.

"Are you banking all of your hopes on that?! Most unwise, Your Highness. There is nothing more capricious than soulless magic."

Four had been struck in the chest. Six fell after getting stabbed in the stomach. The rest had been disposed of via attacks to their arms, legs, back...Zeil had not been selective about the wounds that he had inflicted on his opponents. He had simply struck them down.

Even the leader of the squad had not proved to be much of a threat. All Zeil had needed to do was draw an attack from him, and counter-attack before he could defend himself with his shield. One strike had been sufficient to take him down, just like the rest of his men.

Zeil squatted down next to him and tapped his body lightly. "Hey. Are you alive?"

Nothing. He was probably dead. Zeil didn't care enough to find out.

"Really, what the hell was all that about?" Zeil thought to himself. With all of the soldiers struck down like this, there was no longer any way for him to discover why they had attacked him. If possible, he would have preferred to leave them alive. He had no love for killing, and he would have been able to question them as well. But doing that would have mean holding back and increasing the risk of the battle, and that was out of the question. He could not allow himself to be defeated here, by opponents of this calibre.

It only happened for a brief instant, but the undergrowth rustled slightly, and the sound did not escape Zeil's ears.

More enemies?

A lithe, white figure burst out from the surrounding greenery, closely followed by another clad in red armour. The girl dressed in white widened her eyes upon seeing Zeil and grinded to a halt, turning around to face her pursuer.

"Oh? What's this, my princess? Is this why you had so much hope? You still had one final ally left," Baldus said. He, too, had slowed down, and was now eyeing Zeil with a look of interest. He had not missed the mass of corpses that littered the ground around Zeil.

Alisa glanced at the white-haired swordsman. She had no idea who he actually was, but it seemed as though Baldus thought that he was a subordinate of hers. She was definitely not going to let a chance like this escape. It was almost too much to hope for, but if she could get this person to help her distract Baldus, it might just be possible for her to get away. She had no choice but to give it a try.

"You made a mistake by underestimating me, Baldus. Did you think that I wouldn't capitalize on that?"

Zeil turned from left to right, looking at Alisa and Baldus in confusion. The swivelling movement made his head somewhat resemble a pendulum.

"Who the hell are you guys?"

He shuddered and drew back as the redhead girl gave him one of the most murderous looks he had ever seen.

Baldus chuckled as he covered his face with a hand. "Hahaha! Underestimate? It seems as though my estimation of you was right on the mark, princess. But nonetheless, let it not be said that I am an uncharitable person. I will give you one last snatch, one last chance of survival. You - the swordsman over there - you should ally with the princess and fight me. You seem quite capable, judging from the way you've dispatched a squadron of my men with no wounds. My orders are to slaughter everyone in this forest, and that includes you as well. We can't allow anyone to know that the princess has escaped."

Zeil crossed his arms and nodded his head. "I see, I see. I understand perfectly."

He next turned to Alisa and shielded his mouth with his free hand. "Mind telling me what exactly is going on here, lady?" he mock-whispered.

"..." The princess raised an eyebrow, trying to restrain herself. "...I'm Her Highness, Princess Alisa Crimtain, and the rightful heir to the throne of the Kingdom of Crimtain. The man standing opposite us is General Lloyd Baldus, the Ash Knight. He's been ordered to take me into custody, and, apparently, kill anyone else here."

"I see," Zeil replied, readjusting his grip on his sabre. "But why is a general chasing after you, a princess of the kingdom?"

"...Have you really not heard? There's been a coup. My family no longer controls the throne. Baldus' orders come from Ezen Hreight."

"Ezen Hreight? Who's that?"

Alisa muttered several curses under her breath in frustration. She had run into a fool. "Do you know nothing at all?" she asked.

"I'm not really someone who pays attention to the affairs of the world, Your Highness. I'm just a wanderer. Still, I think I more or less get the gist of the situation now. We can save the complicated explanations for later. Basically, I have to defeat that guy - the Ash Knight or whatever his name is - in order for us to escape. "

"That is correct."

Zeil grinned widely. "I just have one - no, two - questions then."

"And what would those be?"

"How strange," Alisa thought to herself. "He may be a fool, but he is at least a fearless one."

"First," Zeil held up a finger. "Is that guy strong?"

Alisa nodded. "Baldus is certainly one of the strongest warriors in this Kingdom. His status as a general was well-earned."

The knight in question shrugged and smiled. "I am not one to sing my own praises, but it seems as though the princess is quite willing to do that for me. Why are you interested in my strength, boy?"

"I'm wondering if you're strong enough to kill me."

The Ash Knight's jaw slackened, and he narrowed his eyes, holding out his longsword before him. Wisps of charred ash began to gather around the blade.

"Shall we find out?" he whispered.

"Sure. But before that, there's one more thing I want to know. You said that your kingdom had been stolen from you, didn't you, Princess?"


"So, you will try to regain your rightful place upon the throne if you make it out of alive, right?"

"That is indeed my plan." The princess stared at him. Just what was this boy trying to drive at?

"That sounds pretty tough, huh?"

"Of course. I will have to go up against my entire kingdom."

It went without saying. It was an arduous task that had almost no chance of success.

"I see. In that case, my princess, allow me to be your ally, not just here, but for the rest of your life. You say that you plan to wage war against an entire kingdom?"

Zeil Gradis' face twisted into a madcap grin and he began walking towards Baldus, raising his sabre high above his head.

"That's perfect. Absolutely perfect. Having an entire kingdom as an enemy? That fits in perfectly with my goal. I couldn't ask for anything more."