BEFORE THE DAWN
Silent, drowsy and gloom streets coated in dampened moon’s light, a fragrant reminder of how quickly life can be flipped upside down without any warning. Lino carefully scurried through the alleyways barren of a living soul, recalling the events that had transpired here today. Though he may have left Valor with a confident sweep, he hardly felt so truly. Today he’d gleamed at the Purity Realm Great Demon, someone who would easily be able to discover him were Lino to slip up even slightly. Enrobed in the black cloak with hood hiding his face, his steps were slow and careful, wary of alerting any unwanted eyes.
The rubble was spread out and about, concrete proof of a city that was handled a catastrophe just recently. There were more than a few corpses here and there, with blood trails wailing against the thick, bricked walls. On more than one occasion, he had to look away. Just yesterday, the city housed entertained lot who’d know not day or night in their delirium. Today? It is a grim shadow of yesterday. Treading over the battered grounds didn’t come easy for him, even less so when he’d ran across the three girls he’d ‘hired’ to keep a lookout on for any ‘red eyes and such’.
Taking a deep breath, he forcibly calmed himself down before glancing toward the Palace. He was still a couple miles away as he didn’t dare approach candidly, yet its destruction was quite visible, even from back here, and even so during the night. Tattered walls hung barely on the edge, innards exposed to the shining moonlight. As he was about to look away, his eyes landed on her, standing on the ledge, draped in a beautiful, white gown, her silver hair cascading down her back like a waterfall. Her eyes peered toward the sky, air about her melancholic. There are some wounds that neither time nor care could ever heal; Lino imagined that seeing the city you grew up in - the city you were a Princess of - razed and beaten to such a degree would be one of those wounds. For better or worse, she was still alive, Lino wagered as he ducked back into the shadowed alleys, making his way over.
Freya stared at the clear, night sky, seeking the glitter of stars and drawing a picture in her mind. Hands beneath her gown were shaking, her nails digging into her skin, bleeding crimson. She didn’t dare look down. It hurt too much. Just a mere glance would remind her of what she had seen today. It would bring about the rebirth of a crimson-dyed image she had worked the whole day on forgetting. It happened too quickly to process it properly, yet slowly enough to be imparted directly into one’s psyche, and she had the front row seats for the whole ordeal. Seeing Valor being blown backward like a cannonball was one thing, but the ensuing chaos was another. Her father is dead. Her mother is missing, as is her second brother. The Palace is wholly silent, drowned in drowsiness of emptiness, melancholy, an odd, eerie feeling creeping into its thinly veiled walls.
“You look as beautiful as ever.” a gentle voice which, just yesterday, used to bring a smile to her face, jolted her from her dream, causing her to bite her lower lip before turning around and smiling.
“Brother. You have come.” Freya said, bowing lightly toward the newcomer; Prince Yox stood a few paces away, wearing a royal garb adorned in golden threads and complex patterns, with a glittering scabbard strapped to the side of his belt. “Is it time?” she asked.
“Not yet,” Prince Yox said, smiling faintly. “We have some minutes to kill prior to being required to descend. It is a beautiful night, is it not?”
“It is,” Freya said, turning back toward the sky. “I hardly ever remember the stars shining so brightly.”
“... are you afraid of me, Freya?” Prince Yox asked.
“... I do not know.” she replied as he slowly walked up and stopped next to her. “Ought I be?”
“I will readily admit I am far from what one would call a good person,” the Prince said. “Events of today should attribute to that, after all. But, whether you wish to believe me or not, I hardly had a choice, Freya.”
“... choices are all we have, Yox.” Freya said. “You are the one who taught me that.”
“... do you remember when we visited Anna and Joan?” the Prince suddenly asked, surprising Freya. “I believe you were eight at the time. You loved their garden, and stayed there for the most of our visit with Joan. Meanwhile, Anna and I were inside with Royal Father and Duke Yolk, who were excitedly recounting the plans they had for our marriage.”
“... I never knew you were engaged with Anna. It must have hurt you when she died.”
“... back then, I had a choice to save her,” the Prince said, his voice cracking halfway through. “In return, I only had to stab you in the heart.”
“...” Freya shifted her head sideways and looked into his eyes, depicting only honesty.
“I have been given similar, impossible choices throughout my life, Freya,” Yox continued. “Assortment of choices laid before me, all I had to do was pick whichever I wished.”
“... allow me to venture a guess,” Freya said, looking away. “Most of those involved my life, one way or another.”
“I have always known you loved me Yox, and not as a sister,” Freya said. “However, I had never ventured a guess your obsession with me would lead to this.”
“... so you do resent me?” Yox asked, his voice trembling slightly.
“No... I just sympathize,” Freya said. “That you had to sell your soul because you saw no other way to wed me. Father, I assume, refused your proposal every single time, mother hardly ever had any interest and told you to do whatever you want, and Relish... well, Relish must have pretended to have never noticed anything. Among us, you were always the one shining the brightest, Yox, yet you always also cast the longest shadow. My hand in marriage... do you truly think it was worth it?”
“... I do,” Yox said meekly. “Those people outside... they... they are irrelevant. They are like rabbits; no matter how many you hunt, they will breed quickly enough to compensate for the losses. But there is only one you and one me Freya. There is only one royal family. There is only one Umbra Kingdom.”
“You are broken, Yox,” Freya said, glancing at him and smiling faintly while her eyes grew moist. “I suspect you have been broken for quite some time now. You clearly do not think all lives beyond this place are worthless, yet you proclaim it with such conviction that a stranger would be none the wiser. I do not know, nor do I care to find out, whose hands tangled themselves around you, but I do care for my brother. However much you love me, you were always Prince first and everyone else second. And Prince cares about his people, as you do. Today, you have condemned the whole of Umbra Kingdom to a war that will not end until we no longer exist, Yox. You have invited spawns of darkness into our home and let them breed ceaselessly beneath our beds. You have let them dine with us, speak with us, guide us. You may have my hand forevermore... but, today, you have forever lost my heart.”
“... Freya...” Yox mumbled, grabbing her hand. “I... I didn’t have another choice!”
“Whoa, careful there, the commoner inside of you is showing.” a chirp voice startled the two.
“Who goes there?!” Yox turned around as he drew out the sword from his scabbard and pointed it at the outline hidden in the shadow beyond the rubble.
“... why are you here?” Freya, though, quickly relaxed and asked.
“I have come for you.” the voice replied.
“There is no need. You can leave.” Freya said.
“Freya, who is he?! How do you know him?” Yox asked, agitated.
“... as much as I admire your whole ‘self-sacrifice’ spiel, I don’t think it’s helping anyone at the moment,” Lino walked out, chuckling lightly, gentle, nightly wind blowing his hair. “You can’t save your Kingdom while being prisoner inside its rotten heart.”
“Don’t bother,” Lino said, sighing. “The poor things were so exhausted they decided to take a nap. You really should be more attentive to them.”
“... you were the one who saved Valor today.” Freya said, smiling lightly. “I should be expressing my gratitude for that. Valor is a good man.”
“He is,” Lino nodded. “As you are.”
“I am hardly a man, do you not think so?”
“Well, you’re certainly behaving as one,” Lino said. “Stubborn, headstrong and, quite frankly, a bit stupid.”
“Then you, being the sensible one, are a woman, no?” Freya said.
“Enough!! Who is he Freya?!! Answer me!!”
“Aaah!” Freya screamed out as she felt her arm being pulled, her feet stumbling over a piece of rock; her body fell to gravity, leaning sideways, while both Lino and Yox drove their arms toward her, but were to late. Yox’s sword was in the trajectory of her body, stabbing right through her sleep, dousing her white gown in crimson.
“Freya!!” Lino and Yox exclaimed at the same time as she fell onto the floor, breathing faintly. “Hey, hey, look at me! Dammit, you fucking moron,” Lino cursed, ripping of a piece of cloth from his shirt and winding it around her wound. “Hey, what the hell are you doing?! Is this really a good time to freeze up?! Go and fetch a doctor!”
“R-right!” Yox exclaimed. “No, wait! You plan to take her away!”
“... just go grab a fucking doctor if you don’t want her to die.” Lino growled at him, ignoring the Prince afterwards while tending to Freya’s wound. “You know,” he spoke to her when the Prince left finally. “You really are like a man. What other woman would be insane enough to impale herself on a sword as means to an escape?”
“... you figured it out?” Freya mumbled, chuckling faintly as Lino helped her up on her feet, holding onto her wound and pushing Qi in to prevent further injury.
“Well, either that or you’re just a clumsy little girl,” Lino said. “And I wouldn’t bet on the latter. How much do we have?”
“A few minutes, at most.” Freya said. “How confident are you in escaping?”
“... from your pervy brother? Quite so. From others in the Palace? Eh, we’ll take our chances.”
“... he is not... he is not perverted. He is just...”
“Whatever he is,” Lino said, dragging her to the edge. “We can analyse it for days on end once we’re out. For the time being, he’s your pervy brother that we have to get away from. If you have any complaints, keep them in that pretty little head of yours.”
“Oh, you think I am pretty?”
“... right, now you decide to behave like a vain woman,” Lino said, chuckling lightly. “Hold on tightly.”
“I knew you would come for me, you know?” Freya said, wrapping her arm around Lino’s neck while the latter suddenly jumped off into the darkness beneath.
“Oh? What gave me away?”
“... nothing. I just... knew. In my heart.”
“... still not the greatest idea to impale yourself on the sword to give us a chance to escape.”
“Felt more assuring than risking detection by striking him.” Freya said. “Whereto now?”
“... now? Onto a rather long journey.”
“Will we ever come back here?”
“We will,” Lino said. “And even if I don’t, you certainly will.”
“... thank you.” she said faintly, pushing her head into the nape of his neck. Lino landed onto the ravaged ground and carefully danced around the many craters while escaping Palace’s compound.
“Well, I am your shadow,” Lino said. “Aren’t shadows supposed to follow their source no matter where the latter goes?”
Just as he reached the three mile mark away from the Palace, a resounding roar full of anger bellowed out from the Palace. A mere moment later, Lino felt an overwhelming presence sweep over him, causing his pupils to dilate.
“We’ve been made,” he mumbled weakly. “This... is going to be rough. Better hold on.” Purity Realm?! Really?! You couldn’t have informed someone that can’t kill me with a glance?! Shit! Shit! Shit! Lino... think... think... right!! That place where that weird devil fought me! Maybe she’s still there! It’s a minute away... I should be able to make it... I hope...