The heavy oak door creaked open, revealing the dimly lit chamber beyond. “I’ve made it,” I announced as I stepped into Anthony’s room, the soft glow of candles casting shadows on the walls. Within the cavities of my consciousness, Roger’s voice resonated, tinged with awe and curiosity. ‘Impressive quarters. Haven’t seen anything like this before.’ I moved closer to the center of the room, glancing briefly at the maps and scrolls scattered across a large wooden table.
“What’s our game plan, Anthony?”
Leaning back, Anthony raised an eyebrow. “You seem well-informed,” he remarked. “Did you know the Emperor personally sought my assistance?”
“No, but it is Interesting.”
Anthony paused, tilting his head slightly as he regarded me with curiosity and concern. “You’re more yourself, Alex. Earlier, there was a warmth, a light in your eyes I hadn’t seen in a while. I liked it.”
Impatience bubbled up within me. “Enough chit-chat. Let’s get to it,” I said, scanning the room for essentials. My hand landed on the hilt of a finely crafted sword, and I didn’t hesitate to pocket a few shimmering potions from the nearby shelf.
Anthony’s gaze shifted to a polished cabinet in the room’s far corner, its doors slightly open to reveal an array of weapons. “Ensure you arm yourself with both steel and silver swords. We don’t know what we’re up against,” he warned a note of urgency in his voice.
I paused, a sudden chill running down my spine. “Magical creatures in town?” The thought sent my heart racing, and my fingers tightened around the sword’s hilt.
Anthony’s voice dropped to a near whisper, filled with suspicion. “This isn’t just any creature lurking in the shadows. It’s intelligent, devious, and chaos has a chilling intent behind it.” Anthony moved towards the door, “We must move to the city guard base,” he declared, stepping into the dimly lit corridor beyond.
I sent a silent mental message to the presence within me. ‘Brace yourself, Roger. If things go south, we’ll need to sync up and combine our strengths,’ I contemplated. In the quiet recesses of my mind, Roger’s voice responded, loaded with apprehension. ‘I’ll brace myself. Just give the signal.’
As we emerged from the mansion’s heavy doors, the town’s creepy silence enveloped us. It was an unsettling contrast to the usual rush and noise, with only the distant echo of our footsteps breaking the stillness. The memories of children playing and merchants marketing their products from earlier in the day flashed in my mind. “It seems word has spread rapidly,” I remarked, the weight of the situation pressing down on me.
“Word travels fast when fifty bodies are discovered. We attempted to downplay it, claiming there were only ten, but there’s no concealing a tragedy of that scale,” Anthony stated, his voice unnervingly calm. “Fifty victims? It was wise to ensure Eliza and Sophia were safe at the palace.”
“Thank you, Alex,” Anthony said, giving my shoulder a comforting pat.
The journey felt longer than it was, given the weight of the situation. Soon, the formidable stone walls of the city guard’s base emerged from the horizon, signaling our approach. The frenzied activities of the imperial knights outside its gates painted a vivid picture of our dire circumstances.
The sight of the Empire’s elite forces here was unexpected. “They called upon the imperial knights?” My voice betrayed a hint of surprise.
“News to me as well,” Anthony responded, flashing his medallion to a guard.
Recognizing the emblem on Anthony’s attire, the guard nodded respectfully. “You bear the crest of House Wellesley. You may pass, Duke.” However, as I attempted to follow, he moved to block my path, clearly questioning my right to enter. “The Duke alone has clearance to proceed. All others must remain here,” the guard declared, his tone leaving no room for negotiation.
“He’s not just ‘others’. He’s my trusted ally and friend. If he doesn’t enter, neither do I,” Anthony stated firmly, his intense gaze challenging the guard. The tension in the air was palpable, like the charged moment before a storm breaks. After what felt like an eternity, the guard reluctantly stepped aside, allowing us to pass. Anthony gestured towards the open path with a nod. “Lead the way,” he urged, exerting himself to swing open the heavy fort gates, revealing the bustling interior.
Once inside the fort, the atmosphere was electric. Guards, knights, and personnel moved with purpose, their hurried actions painting a picture of a base in crisis. We were directed towards the command center after a brief exchange with one of the guards. The room was a hub of decision-making. Key figures discussed which included the city guard’s leadership, the Grandmaster of the Knights Order, and a select group of knights. Among them, a young woman roughly our age stood out, her demeanor suggesting she held significant influence.
The Grandmaster stared at us as we entered, his voice dripping with sarcasm. “Ah, the esteemed Duke graces us with his presence. I had heard of your involvement from the Emperor himself,” he remarked, the corner of his mouth turning up in a smirk.
“Grandmaster, the history between us is well known to all,” Anthony responded, his tone firm yet measured. “But now is not the time for personal grudges. The city’s safety is at stake.”
The commander’s response was a dismissive snort, making it clear where he stood on the matter.
With an exhaustive gaze that took in everyone present, the young woman announced, “With the Duke now among us, all those lacking significant noble lineage should make their exit.”
That is worrying; I’m not a noble. “Anthony, should I leave?” I inquired.
“You have been granted the privilege to attend these proceedings by the Emperor himself.” Anthony’s voice resonated clearly, ensuring all present could hear. Whispers of “The Emperor?” filled the room, a collective murmur of astonishment echoing through the chamber.
As lesser nobles reluctantly exited, a distinct expression of disapproval marked the young woman’s face. Her gaze fixed on me, she declared, “I still contest his presence.” Her words were like ice, her anger palpable as she shot a disdainful look in my direction.
Sensing the tension, Anthony took a deliberate step forward, positioning himself between the young woman and me. “Shadow Duke,” he began, ensuring he had her full attention, “your reservations have been heard and acknowledged.” He paused, letting his words sink in before continuing, “But right now, the city’s safety, the lives of its inhabitants, are at stake. Personal grievances need to take a backseat.”
She raised an eyebrow, her voice dripping with challenge. “But as we all know, the Emperor’s decree is absolute. If you have qualms, maybe it’s him you should be addressing.”
She leaned forward slightly, her piercing eyes demanding an answer. “What makes him so special? Why does he have this privilege?”
Anthony stood firm, his voice unwavering. “It’s due to his track record, his proven abilities,” he defended, casting a brief, encouraging smile in my direction.
She tilted her head, a smirk playing on her lips. “I know many with talent. Should we call upon each of them? And as for him,” she gestured dismissively in my direction, “I’ve yet to witness these famed ‘capabilities’ you speak of.”
“He is the Emperor’s son,” the Knight Order commander said, the smirk on his face impossible to miss.
“Commander, you have overstepped your bounds!” Anthony erupted, slamming his fist on a nearby table.
“I speak the truth, little Duke. The Emperor relies on me more than you or his offspring. Meaning I can say what I want,” the commander shot back, his face hardening.
“Oh! So he’s the son of a prostitute,” the Shadow Duke mocked.
I felt the fire of rage course through me. ‘Get ready, Roger. We are killing this ugly bitch,’ I raged internally.
‘Alex! Control yourself, or we’ll be in real trouble!’ Roger’s fearful scream echoed inside my head.
“Calm yourself, Alex. Ignore her provocations,” Anthony warned, sensing my fury.
“A duel might settle this. If Alex is victorious, he stays,” suggested the Knight Order commander, further agitating the pot.
Anthony leaned in, his voice barely above a whisper, “There are hidden truths about the Empire you’re unaware of. She’s not just a Shadow Duke; she’s also a vampire.”
“What?” My exclamation escaped louder than intended. I gathered my composure and continued, “I’ve never heard that title before. But why is a vampire of such weird noble rank?”
“We will talk about it later. But for now, decline the duel,” Anthony urged, his insistent tone worsening my already steaming emotions. Yet, I barely needed a moment to decide my following action.
“I like that idea,” said the Shadow Duke, whatever that title means.
“Good. Then Alex. What’s your choice?” Asked the commander, giving me a severe look.