Chapter 1: The Crimson Dragon
Written by Eishima Jun
Designed by Yoko Taro
Translated by Rekka Alexiel
[ Fragment 1 ]
I heard my sister’s voice.
It sounded so awfully young as it called out, “Prince Caim!” I knew right away I must have been imagining things. I hadn’t heard that lisping, little girl’s voice for over ten years now.
In reality, there was no way she could be here. Even in the dead of summer, no one would dare climb these steep cliffs, let alone in the widths of winter. It might go without saying, but anyone who valued their lives would refuse the suggestion to climb the mountain at all. Without a single tree or blade of grass on these peaks, no bird nor beast made this their home. The only living creature to do so was said to be a dragon, which lived at the summit.
To challenge the strength of one’s own body by reaching the summit of this snow-covered mountain was the sheer epitome of recklessness. A little too late now, I thought. That was when I thought I heard my sister’s voice—that little childish voice—even though I knew it couldn’t possibly be her.
I knew the temperature had fallen to the point where its frigid hands tried to freeze my mind, making it difficult to think clearly. Many of the soldiers in my group had lost touch with reality before even reaching this far. One man, ranting and raving like an insane beast, wailed aloud as his mind began to crumble. Another’s insane laughter rose into the crisp air as he bitterly sobbed to himself. That split second after their mind cracked, they fall upon their backs in the snow, never to move again. That was the horrible situation of it.
In this place of such severe cold, insanity seemed to be our death-knell. Although I knew it wasn’t really my sister’s voice I heard before—No, that was impossible—I still shuddered at the thought. Not because I was afraid of death, but rather the thought of dying before I had the chance to accomplish my mission was too much for me to bear.
I wonder what comes after hearing voices? Seeing illusions perhaps?
“P-rince Caim… Please… wait…”
This time the voice wasn’t an illusion. The sound of the soldier’s voice who should have been just behind me sounded impossibly far away. Perhaps his teeth were chattering with fear but the sound was suddenly cut off and turned inside-out. Then I realized whose voice I heard before. It must have been his trembling voice, all twisted and contorted by the fear of death, carried along by the whistling wind.
No, I’m still okay, I thought. I haven’t lost it yet.
Without turning back or even glancing behind, I yelled, “Don’t stop walking!”
If you stop once, that will be the end of it. That’s how one, two, twenty soldiers fell from our ranks, leaving only five behind.
Maybe we were the only ones left alive, just myself and the two soldiers walking close behind. For a while, the three of us seemed to have drowned in silence.
There was no way to check for safety either. We would instantly lose sight of the direction ahead if we had glanced behind or turned around.
No, we had already lost the way forward. How could we know for sure what we thought was “forward” was not actually taking us back the way we had come? There was no way to tell if we were advancing in the right direction or merely walking in circles.
It was like we were trapped in a snow globe where everything in sight was pure white. Even the ends of our outstretched arms seemed to fade white. I thought it would be nothing short of a miracle to reach the summit without slipping down the steep mountainside.
This snow was nothing like what I was used to growing up in Caerleon. It was by far a warm place and snow would frequently fall in the winter, but nothing like this. There were some years that it snowed so much that the roads would be impassable for those traveling on horseback. Yet, snow is just snow, and the strong, icy wind was just wind.
I learned for the first time on this mountain how the wind can be like a blade that stings hands and feet, like a flame that roasts and cracks open the skin.
How long could I cling to sanity? How far could I go?
Could I make it to the dragon’s lair? Even if I could, at that point would I still be in control of my mind and body?
This ordeal will not end by simply reaching the summit of the mountain encased in eternal winter. With a dragon as my adversary, I must also match its high intelligence with the language of negotiation.
Even more ridiculous than someone attempting to climb these mountains, what about the man who tried to approach a dragon with nothing more than a business proposal? With so many tough soldiers falling noisily one after the other before my eyes, right now I don’t know which is more absurd.
“No matter how extreme one’s recklessness may be, there can be no hope for us if we do not also achieve our mission. That’s how much I wish to destroy the Empire.”
The face of the hierarch giving his dramatic speech flashed across my mind. Perhaps he’s the main instigator, the face that started it all…
[ Fragment 2 ]
The Empire. Although we did not intentionally start calling ourselves “the Union”, it soon became a common name made out of convenience.
The Union dubbed the Empire forces the “Cult of Watchers”. Our enemy was the cold-blooded, evil Empire.
Actually, it was not entirely clear who the leader of the Empire was, however, I suppose it could be either a man or woman. We never fully understood the internal workings of the Empire or the Cult of Watchers. We couldn’t rule out the possibility of multiple people in charge of the whole thing.
Simply, it was convenient for us to claim that we were fighting for the side of justice by calling the other side names like “dictator” and “the Evil Empire”.
But which ever side justice may truly lie, the strength and power of the Empire grew day by day, crushing the Union into much smaller areas on the map to the point where the hierarch said, “There is no future for us.” It was neither an exaggeration nor overly pessimistic.
About the same time, the Union was forced to fall back time and time again. Morale sunk sharply on all fronts. The rumor of a monster on the loose within the Empire’s forces spread throughout the Union.
They had eyes as red as blood, and no matter how many times they might be knocked down, they always got back up again. Even if their arms were lopped off or if they sustained what should have been a fatal injury, nothing seemed to stop them. They kept fighting, never parting with their swords.
It was no wonder that those who faced these wraiths were filled with fear. Many turned tail and fled.
“We need power. Power for those who’ve fled to find their courage once again! We can change this situation! Let this be the first step toward our revival!”
“Why are you saying this to me?” I said, growing tired of Verdelet’s—the self-proclaimed hierarch—grandiose speeches.
“I heard there was a single mercenary leader who fearlessly stood before the Red-Eyes, never once taking a step back. Like the old gods of war, that man raised the level of morale among his men with his boldness alone.”
“You flatter me. But I am no captain.”
True, there were still those who spoke of me and cheered my name, “Prince Caim! Prince Caim!”. But I had no intention to lead them in this war. The time of the imperial family was over. Our country was no more.
Whether good or bad, I was the “only surviver of Caerleon.” It has been five years already, when the Black Dragon slaughtered my parents and the so-called Red-Eye monsters sprang from the royal palace, indiscriminately killing all those who were inside.
If I survived by accident while my country and family fell to ruin, perhaps I would feel like sharing that good fortune with others. I understand how the soldiers would want to raise their fists if I stood at their lead. But even so, life and death are separated only by the slightest pinch of luck on the battlefield.
[ Fragment 3 ]
I had no intention to lead them, but as more and more soldiers gradually surrounded me and followed me on the battlefield, there was little I could to to make them see me as anything other than their leader.
They grew to believe that they might live a little longer if they followed me. In that way, I suppose I succeeded in “raising the morale of our comrades”.
If they say I did the right thing by standing my ground in front of those monsters then it was right. Little did they know my reasons for it, that the only thing coursing through my veins at the moment was to kill every, single one of those red-eyed monsters. That was all. I wanted to exterminate those monsters that annihilated my home. None of them would escape me. No matter what may come, I would not retreat. For as long as those Empire bastards stand. Even if they received word to withdraw. They would be mine.
That’s why I thought it wasn’t right for me to lead an army against the Empire nor did I want to be a mere grunt in their ranks. My motivation was not “to battle” but rather “to massacre”. All I wanted to do was kill. That’s it. That’s why I thought it was a sick joke that they wanted me to command them into battle.
“It doesn’t matter whether you become their leader or not. As long as you do your job.”
I wasn’t listening at all after that point because I had already made up my mind: No. I would not waste my time unless it meant killing soldiers of the Empire. But…
“Our aim is to ally ourselves with the dragons.”
I didn’t understand right away what he had meant. I thought he was just talking nonsense.
“If the Empire is riddled with monsters, then we must match their power and strength.”
“No fucking way. I don’t want any part of this. Get someone else.”
I had no time to go along with his fairytale. An alliance with dragons? No fucking way.
“They say a dragon resides at the top of a steep mountain range where no one can reach. I would like you to check it out, with your own eyes.”
Verdelet had a way of detaining me by beating around the bush. At first glance, he might seem like a timid little thing, but this was the first time I thought it would be unwise to underestimate him.
“We do not know what kind of dragon it is, however. It could be one with blue wings or perhaps even scales of silver. But…”
His eyes flashed with the color of cunning intellect.
“If it turns out to be your Black Dragon, it’s yours to do as you please.”
The Black Dragon. It was that black monstrosity that appeared in the courtyard of the royal palace and cruelly slaughtered my parents five years ago. I hated that beast as much as the Red-Eyes, and just like them, I so desperately wanted to cut and carve it all to pieces.
“Pick whichever soldiers you like to take with you. They will accompany you on your quest. Wouldn’t it be nice to finally have your revenge?”
“And if it’s a different dragon?”
“Then I want you to negotiate an alliance. Your hatred is only for the Black Dragon, is it not?”
He then told me the name of the mountain in which a dragon was said to reside. I’ve heard of it somewhere before. It wasn’t too far from Caerleon, actually. A dragon with wings could easily make that distance. Maybe it really was the dragon.
“If you kill the Black Dragon, other dragons could make you a target. I don’t know if they all share the same commodore for that beast, but it could jeopardise an alliance. Are you alright with that?”
“It doesn’t matter. I’m already risking my life to climb those mountains. But there is no better incentive for this dangerous task.”
If it’s the Black Dragon, I will kill it. If it’s not, then we will discuss an alliance. It was just business.
“Ah, so you’ll do it? Thank you! I would be overjoyed, should an alliance with the dragons occur, to bestow upon you the rank of knight for your due efforts…”
Or so Verdelet began spewing his thanks, although I gave his words no notice and left on the spot.
[ Fragment 4 ]
I couldn’t hear anything but the wind. The squall swallowed the voices of the few remaining soldiers behind me. No matter how loudly I called out to them, there was no answer.
Verdelet told me to pick the best for this mission, but in the end, none of them would return to their homes of solace. One by one they fell, so quickly. Only a few with such tenacious will survived until the very end. They were mere mercenaries, hired hands with no proper title. For what use did a title serve upon these snowy slopes?
After passing the fifth station, it soon became apparent who was lagging behind, and suddenly the weather took a turn for the worse.
I told them, we could not wait for those who fell behind or could no longer stand. Lending a hand to a fallen comrade in this place would surly mean sacrificing your own life as well. No, the only way forward was to keep moving with eyes focused dead ahead and to worry about no one else besides ourselves. This mountain would forgive no less.
The result of this plan produced many sacrifices. Would it still be possible to defeat the Black Dragon, even without a single comrade-in-arms?
More importantly, would I be able to survive long enough—alone—to reach the dragon’s lair?
My head felt as though it were splitting in two. I couldn’t think of anything else. My ears rang a hundred times louder than that of the wind.
And yet somehow my eyes saw something glistening through that white snow—the gentle glimmer of stars. It must have been a miracle, for night had not yet fallen. I felt as though something was tugging at my remaining consciousness, pulling me away.
This is bad. I didn’t know what was happening, but I knew that this couldn’t be a good sign.
I haphazardly commanded my feet and arms to move. I could hardly feel anything. I had already lost the feeling in my fingers some time ago, and seemed to spread throughout my remaining limbs as well.
But it wasn’t as though I had no strength. I could still move. And I’d be damned if I would give in while I still had the strength to stand.
Annoyance at my situation drove me forward. I relied on my strength alone as I placed one foot in front of me. That’s when I heard something roar.
Something hit me. Whatever little sense I had left was shattered and replaced with nothing but fear. I gradually realized that I had been swept up in an avalanche.
The world “death” fluttered on my mind.
I don’t want to die.
I fought back against the snow with everything I had.
I don’t want to die……
Abruptly, my body felt very light. I was tossed and flung about. I couldn’t breathe. I tried with all my might to free myself from the snow.
I half imagined this is what it must feel like to drown. I felt my consciousness drift as I struggled for air. Again my ears rang. Nonetheless, I continued crawling and pushing the snow aside.
Before I knew it, I discovered earth beneath my feet, not snow. I could smell it. I tried to stand, but my body would not move. Thoroughly exhausted, I felt my mind relax. Perhaps I had finally reached safe ground.
I tried to pry myself from the earth as though I had been sewn into it. As I raised myself up, I could see a wall of stone before me. Although the area was dimly lit, there was still enough light to tell that I was in some sort of cave. I had never been so thankful for the light of day.