(War for the Capital: Prologue)
As it would turn out, the logistics necessary to properly march and feed an army were far more complicated than Shirou could have ever imagined. Just like how a flock of sheep grazing on a patch of land could reduce all the grass to nothing in a short span of time, the resources depleted by the army on a daily bases were similar. Just the fresh water rations alone were dwindling from a few days trek, forcing the group to make stops by lakes and rivers to resupply. Carriage horses, separated from the main breed of war horses also required time to graze to have the energy to pull the supply carts.
The marching army had also been forced to seek rural settlements to restock their rations, further adding to delays. Food was limited to cured meats like tough jerky and hard breads to prevent spoilage, meaning fresh meals were now far and in-between. At the very least, ordinary soldiers wouldn't be able to enjoy such a luxury.
Then there were technical aspects. An army did not march alone as a single entity, but a fluid and dynamic force.
Left- and right-wing divisions had to be created to prevent any enemy flanking maneuvers, and specializations such an infantry, linesmen, cavalry, and rangers for example had to be properly placed in army formation to be most effective. Eager men and women from the villages they'd procured supplies from could fill these roles, but that put into question proper training. It was better to have no unit than an untrained and detrimental one. It was for this reason that the marching army had tacitly refused the enlistment of these eager youth.
However, it was quite odd that the closer the army moved in on the capital, the less youths seemed compelled to join their cause. One would think that with the sheer corruption of the capital, these men and women would be jumping to contribute, but at times, it just felt like there was something off.
Regardless, the fateful march proceeded on.
The growing force was quite a sight from a distance, clouds of dust and gravel upturned in its wake. However, this was less from the soldiers, and more from Shirou's own preparations.
Several teams of oxen tied to a sturdy cart attached to towering bones left deep grooves in their wake. The sheer size of the bones the team of oxen and their handlers were dragging made them seem like siege towers from a distance. Many of the officers and military forces not in the know had assumed so, but everyone close to Shirou had learned that these bones had another purpose.
These were the final remains of the Danger Beast bones Calla had obtained after the conflict with Heiwa and the Danger Beast tamers of Hageshi. They were the last and greatest chunk of the Danger Beast bones Shirou had in his possession to fuel his magecraft. For this battle, he was going all in. With a constant supply of energy, he wouldn't be fainting until those bones were reduced to nothing, and he was forced to use his own limited reserves again. He'd already learned his lesson when Esdeath had captured him, and knew to be careful. All things considered; it was lucky that Esdeath was the one to abduct him rather than any assassin's under Honest's employ. He was far too vulnerable in a depleted state to risk that in this kind of war.
With this in mind, Shirou had made all preparation, leaving only the journey and the battle to be fought to dwell over. And certainly, these two objectives were imperative for him, but it didn't mean that they were the most imperative for others.
Over the course of the journey, Shirou had noticed many marching alongside him, either on horseback or on foot, wearing mixed emotions. Each had their own thoughts to consider, and plans for the future if they didn't end up dead. Of course, this also included not taking any regrets to the grave.
"When this war ends…will you marry me?"
Shirou had to take a moment to blink when that question came out.
Selka rode a horse beside him, keeping pace with the horse Shirou was riding on. Her face was beset with tension, hope, and anxiety, her head hung low, eyes unable to meet his but constantly peeking up. She'd clearly spent much time deliberating over this.
Everyone nearby suddenly just seemed to freeze when the words left Selka's mouth, a majority taken back, and a select few looking as if someone had just gutted them. Akame herself very nearly fell out of the trees where she was vigilantly shadowing the army. Nevertheless, it did not detract from the speed in which her and everyone else's attention shifted from marching to subtle eavesdropping.
Shirou, as the person in question, was in a bind. He could only feign ignorance towards Selka's advances for so long by pretending as if he didn't notice her attempts at sounding him out prior, but now that death maybe hiding its head in this war, she'd gone ahead and decided to be blunt. It was better to have said it and tried, then to be potentially killed and never get the chance.
No matter how calm Selka tried to play herself off as, anyone could tell how tense she was, as if she was ready to bolt, but her courage had yet to wear off. Unfortunately, the longer the silence, the further her courage waned, and the further she tucked her neck between her shoulders.
Shirou had a choice to make.
A bloody war was set to occur with him as one of its leaders, and that meant Shirou wouldn't be around to protect everyone. God forbid if he decided to send Selka out into a battlefield depressed or despairing from rejection. Some women who've experienced such things may even see the point of a blade or the barrel of a gun as 'welcoming.'
He couldn't take that risk, not for one of his own.
"I'll seriously consider it," he said after careful deliberation.
Giving hope in a battlefield of life and death granted a tenacity to survive that couldn't be underestimated. Soldiers in war who had somebody waiting for their return almost always fought ferociously to live. Besides, it wasn't as if Shirou was against marrying Selka. She was a nice girl, a bit quiet, and overly strong, but devote and caring all the same.
Selka fainted there and then, her head lulling back as she slipped off her horse with a thud, all of her tension suddenly shifting into euphoric relief and overloading her mind. Her fellow clansmen were quick to lend their aid and hoisted her away with sheepish grins on their faces. In contrast, Akame was pale at the answer, her fingers balled on the hem of her skirt so tightly that her hands were trembling.
For his part, Shirou did notice the sudden plummet in Akame's mood, but couldn't make the connection.
Even if Shirou could read what Akame was thinking, it didn't mean that he understood what she was feeling. Akame was too stone-faced and had trouble showing expressions. It was hard to tell whether she was happy or sad from her features alone, unless that façade broke. In all the interactions Shirou had had with Akame, she'd never conveyed, either silently or vocally, interest in him as a partner. Esdeath had been forward, Selka had worked up her courage, but Akame was stuck pussyfooting after losing touch with her emotions. It didn't help that the only times Akame revealed genuine concern for Shirou's well being was when he was injured or kidnapped, all of which could be denoted to the importance he played as the next Emperor.
This was simply reality. There was no telling how many people passed their chance at a relationship in this manner. You can't expect someone to understand you when you don't say anything at all and just assume they 'know' until it's too late.
Unfortunately, even this was something difficult for Akame to swallow when her natural response was to bottle it in. Only by being true to herself would she be able to take that step forward. And now there was a time limit. If she couldn't act before this war ended, then she'd lose her chance to that- that…barbarian.
A dark cloud hung over Akame from then on, a perpetual glare on her face whenever she caught Selka smiling herself silly, or flustered by her clansmen's teasing her about raising the next generation. It felt terrible to the point that Akame felt her knees wobbling and had to flee from the scene each time.
Shirou had obviously asked Akame what was bothering her over the course of the march to the capital, but she herself didn't know how to explain it and brushed him off. It didn't help that Leone constantly leveled an accusing stare on Shirou's back while spitting on the ground in contempt, but Leone wouldn't tell him anything either.
Left with no other choice, Shirou decided to focus on the war to claim the seat of Emperor.
The Empire's capital was a large kingdom cordoned off by towering stone walls that formed something of a spire-like shape that fused into the side of a cliff-face. Houses within the walls were made of brick and tile for the residential areas, and wood, clay, and thatch in the slums. Three wooden gates situated in the cardinal directions marked the main entrances into the capital, but those gates were shut firmly closed as the echoing of a bell from a belfry sounded in the wind. Sentries along the Capital's walls had sighted the army closing in, and Shirou wasn't exactly hiding the army behind him.
Uniformed men and women took positions on the top of the wall, arming themselves with weapons and nervously looking out towards the horizon.
Shirou and the army had arrived.
Battle was brewing, but after the march to reach the capital, everyone was tired, prompting the decision to make camp and attack at dawn. To guard against night attacks, a tight security detail orchestrated by Najenda and defected members of the Revolutionaries took charge.
By the time morning came, the horns of war were blown.
"So, this day has come at last," Chouri spoke in reminiscence, features grim with determination.
Chouri and Elaine had gotten up early and roused the soldiers into battle positions. However, a few unruly members had to be reprimanded by Elaine for being too eager and stepping out of line. Discipline was a must in this battle, and Elaine wouldn't take the impulsiveness of youth and liberation as an excuse.
This left Chouri to overlook the opening act while Elaine hammered down on the army, focusing mainly on the integrated revolutionaries who were more or less a collection of freedom fighters previously lacking in formal training.
"We'll have to breach the walls and gain access to the central palace where Honest and my cousin reside," Shirou narrowed his eyes, looking past the capital's walls and towards the central citadel guarded within.
"A feat not so easy," Chouri hardened his features, brows knitting in contention. "Ms. Raiko and the ninjas of Jinsoku should have no trouble scaling those walls, but I can't say whether they'd be able to get the main gates open on their own. It's likely that the mechanisms are heavily defended, and you shouldn't forget that the Empire has its own units of Imperial-Arm (Teigu) users."
"Then why not scale the cliff and infiltrate by working our way down?" Shirou suggested, noting the layout of the capital's terrain and the capabilities of himself and his allies.
"You underestimate the strength of the Empire," Chouri sighed. "If it were that easy, I wouldn't be troubling myself this much. The cliff face is lined with numerous traps. Get past that, and frontline canons that have been installed in the citadel will bombard the overhanging portion of the cliff as a last resort. Falling debris and large stones would flatten all intruders."
"But wouldn't those rocks fall on the capital as well?" Shirou said.
"Esdeath, or Budo. Either one of these two have enough power to make falling debris trivial, and Budo always patrols near the palace." Chouri said. "We're left with no choice but to mount some sort of siege. With our current supplies, we can last for three months, longer if we can secure supply chains while simultaneously cutting off the Capital's. We'd then be able to starve them to death and force capitulation, but I doubt it's going to be that easy. If only this were a conventional field battle. Taking the walls may mean losing a quarter or more of the army."
"A field battle?" Shirou ended up nodding his head, calculating his supply of magic energy from the Danger Beast bones and coming to a decision. "Leave that issue to me."
Chouri's first response wasn't to express doubt after the feats he'd seen Shirou pull off, Instead, he expressed concern.
"You mustn't exert yourself," Chouri warned solemnly, shifting his gaze away from the battlefield and leveling his eyes on Shirou with staunch determination. "Your attention is better kept focused on Esdeath should she choose to deploy herself rather than take up command of the Capital's defence."
Shirou replied thus. "Then how many would die trying to scale those walls?"
Chouri didn't answer, silence stretching between them in tacit understanding.
Shirou shook his head. "Let me do what I can Chouri. These people aren't fighting this war to die, but for a chance to live their lives. I'll change the entire battle from a siege into a conventional one, but I'll leave command to you and Elaine while I guard against Esdeath."
"Very well." Chouri wouldn't argue. An ideal king that fought for the sake of his people was one that he whole-heartedly admired. "You've willingly followed my arrangements till this moment, so we'll do it your way."
Shirou readied himself for what was to come.
The war to put and end to strife was at hand.
Nothing was quite the same as it was before. Undercurrents were brewing in the capital, and a weapon such as herself need not pry into things she'd sooner get killed over than understand.
Her name was Kurome, a child sold into slavery and then fostered into a harbinger of death. She was part of an Assassination Division facilitated by an Empire initiative orchestrated by the upper brass. She even possessed a Teigu capable of striking terror into her foes, and making her into a one-man army. Or at the very least, an entire unit or company of soldiers.
In any case, her abilities meant little in the grand scheme of things. Her role was to remain useful or risk being weeded out and killed for weakness.
The Empire under Prime Minster Honest's rule was a rather harsh place. You can easily be replaced or killed without rhyme or reason if you crossed the wrong person. It was an honest hell hole of a place. And sure enough, the risk of death was carried in every assignment.
Kurome narrowed her eyes from atop the Capital walls. She was stationed at the inner curtain where she was peaking through one of the arrow slits modified into gun batteries. In view and standing opposed to the capital's forces was an army no single assassin would infiltrate or confront on their own.
The army was well prepared, and their numbers spanned the entire eastern hillside. At least a dozen crews of cannoneers were wheeling and setting up artillery carts and turret lines. Closer scrutiny would reveal several frontline troops wearing standard issue revolutionary uniforms, but further back and stationed on the left and right wings were undoubtedly people of Wakoku. Had the rumoured upstart Emperor united the warring clans?
Clicking her tongue, Kurome pulled back from the slit, and made her way to a corner tower for a better view in hopes of better formulating a plan to return alive.
Kurome was part of one of the Empire's newest initiatives known as the Jaegers, an elite team of personnel tasked with the quiet elimination of high-profile targets. Their primary intention had been to counter Night Raid's assassin forces, but in this case, they were tasked with hunting the heads of enemy generals in the chaos of battle. To kill a behemoth, one need only aim for the head.
"So that's where you went."
A voice snapped Kurome out of her musings, but even then, she maintained her poker face.
One of her newest associates of the Jaegers, a man by the name of Wave, just couldn't get the clue. You don't make real friends in this profession lest you experience the pain of losing them. Oh right, he was a village boy from a coastal fishing village out of the capital, wasn't he? His naively optimistic features and cheerful personality made the realization quite evident.
Kurome no longer had the energy to bother.
"You talk too much," she muttered.
"And you too little." He smiled back.
Kurome had no words, but arguably had no need for them when Wave tacitly passed over a roast drumstick he'd snuck out from the Empire's barracks. Kurome's nose twitched, her eyes focusing on the offered food before she coughed, took the drumstick, then proceeded to it in silence. She didn't even bother to check if it was poisoned. Wave didn't have it in him to be underhanded like that.
"You shouldn't be here," Kurome kindly reminded. From what she knew, Wave and the others each had their own station by the walls, waiting for a chance at exploiting the coming chaos.
"I understand the reasoning, but my village elders always said it's safer to move in pairs," Wave reasoned.
Did Wave not get it? The Jaegers were not meant to move in a group for this mission. In war, groups only make better targets, increasing the difficulty of any sort of infiltration.
"Why me then?" Kurome sighed.
"You seemed easier to get along with." Wave answered bluntly.
Was it because she wore a sailor's uniform and seemed too harmless? Kurome was slightly irked, her eyes narrowing before she recalled that Wave had brought her food and she relented.
"So, that's Commander Esdeath?" Wave said, changing the subject as his attention shifted to the highwall where the general stood standing.
"…" Kurome couldn't be bothered to answer. Why was this man asking the obvious?
Esdeath was busy issuing orders, looking more motivated than she'd ever been before. In the same vein, she dealt with mistakes far more harshly, refusing to let any big or small go.
In the end, Kurome still ended up explaining since Wave was far too ignorant as a village boy.
"General Esdeath is taking command of the Capital's defence. The entire force has gone on high alert since yesterday, but it doesn't concern us." Kurome said. "Our goal is bypassing the bulk of that army to reach the commander posts situated on the back, so don't get too caught up. Cross the general in any way that undermines her efforts to the war, and you're dead. Keep it in mind."
Wave nodded stiffly, unable to place someone with the expression Esdeath was making to such a stern commander.
Nevertheless, Kurome and Wave's attention soon refocused on the actions of the enemy.
No matter what, Kurome knew all too well that they'd never get passed these walls and fortifications. Not once since the capital's establishments had these walls been breached.
Horns sounded in the distance, followed by the billowed flapping of banners bearing the crest of the founding Empire. The enemy troops advanced their lines, armoured infantry in the front, rangers setting up positions in the back. It would do little good due to the thickness of the capital's walls.
Esdeath raised an arm, signalling the Empire marksmen to take aim. Canons rotated over, and artillery began loading steel pelleted scatter shots, awaiting commands to fire.
Unexpectedly, the forward marching enemy troops broke a line for a single man to step through and proceed onward alone.
Kurome narrowed her eyes, noting the attire the man donned made him out to be someone of high station.
Chouri had outdone himself. As one of the longest-lived men in the present Empire, his knowledge of the past was as extensive as his knowledge. He'd fitted a tailor-made mantle and regalia of the Empire's Beloved First Emperor.
It mattered little in Kurome's mind when the booming sound of gunfire reverberated through the air. Ball-sized holes mottled the ground with deep holes just in front of the approaching figure, but the expression on the man's face remained unchanged.
A warning shot, Kurome convinced herself, watching the way the unknown man and Esdeath stared across from each other on opposite sides.
One gave the impression of a savage beast, and the other, the cold tranquility of a naked blade.
What was this man hoping to do?
A few more steps, and he'd be in the line of fire. How fearless. Was this the enemy's leader? That upstart claiming to be the rightful Emperor? What a fool. The next shot wouldn't miss.
"The sheer grit of that guy. He didn't even flinch," Wave muttered beside Kurome.
Unbeknownst, but the two were starting to feel on edge. Their intuition was warning them that something felt off about all this. The safety of the walls they stood upon had their utmost confidence, but then so why? Why did it feel as if they'd entered the enemy's range and were exposed?
A voice echoed in the wind.
"I am the Bone of my Sword."
Statement or declaration, the words buzzed with an unseen thrum.
A shudder travelled through Kurome's back, goosebumps running up her skin as she shivered from an onset of a windless breeze. The sudden feeling of anxiety she was feeling wasn't restricted to her. Mutterings could be heard throughout the entire defensive line.
Just what was that man doing?
"Steel is my body and fire is my blood."
In the distance, the towering bone-like siege towers glinted with flickering energy, breaking off into ember-like motes that spooked many. For all intents and purposes, no one could spot any sort of Teigu on the man's person to cause all this, rather, the man had merely extended his arm forward.
"I have created over a thousand blades."
Swirls of wind picked up from around him, spinning, churning, picking up speed and generating a fierce roar that blew back dust and debris.
Canon fire sounded in the deep, aimed at the unknown.
"Unaware of loss,"
"Nor aware of gain."
Bronze eyes glinted, the glow of purple unraveling into an ephemeral petal shield that rebuffed the assault. Was that his Teigu? No, something still didn't quite sit right.
Kurome pushed off the walls, hurriedly running to a better vantage point and narrowing her eyes. These words, this feeling…she'd heard about something similar before. Not here. Not in the capital, but before she and her elder sister had been sold into slavery by their parents.
Stories told by the bed side, or revered upon a dying camp fire.
A raging aura of blue erupted around the man like a torch.
"Withstood pain to create weapons, waiting for one's arrival."
It wasn't real. It couldn't be.
Glowing circuit like patterns began to crawl up the man's skin, unlike anything she'd ever seen.
"I have no regrets. This is the only path."
Fire unlike any before erupted from the swirling winds, flickering and growing ever stronger before rapidly expanding out.
"My whole life was…"
A-A ring of fire?
Kurome raised her arms to shield her face just as the diameter of the ring of flame engulfed her, and the entirety of the Empire's front wall where the defenders remained stationed.
The war itself would change in a flash of blinding light.
"Unlimited Blade Works."
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