The sun falls on Port-Odo, leaving behind it a thin darkness pierced by the hundreds of torches on the walls, around the shipyard, and throughout the city’s workshops. In past years, there wouldn’t have been half as many because most would have returned home by this hour.
The city’s defeat seems to have triggered a rebirth, or perhaps it is the change in its way of rule along with their liberation from Rykz occupation. People value what they’ve lost and so their freshly restored and expanded freedom has lit a fire in their hearts.
The citizens now push the hours to complete the repairs as quickly as possible while also expanding the shipyard and finish the half-completed galleys in the dry docks a dozen meters away from the water.
With longer days and more workers on every project, accidents have become more frequent and the resulting injuries worse. Yet sickness, burns, and broken bones do not worry those striving for Port-Odo half as much as they did before.
The reason is quite simple, the Hospitaliers have established one of their Hospitals between the docks and the workshops to deal with injuries and ensure the peace. They are more efficient than Templars through use of numbers, cheaper, and more dedicated to healing as it is the core of their mission.
When an accident occurs, it takes mere minutes for a squad to show up with a physician. If needed, the Hospitaliers even help clean up the mess made and transfer the injured back to their Hospital.
Not to mention their patrols on the streets which ensure the safety of all against thieves and fires. A rumor has even spread that there are Justiciers judging disputes and that they do not care about birth or bribes, which isn’t to say that Nobles are punished but that they are restricted.
Most baffling of all to the citizens is that two Alemplars have taken residence in the Hospital to teach and deal with ailments that the Hospitaliers aren’t qualified to heal. There are also numerous Templars taking ships to Izla Meria and guarding important locations.
The Order isn’t doing anything outside of their usual purview, but there are so many temple guards spread throughout the city that it’s said a Duke who came looking for trouble with Duchess Hetlan didn’t dare start any and directly left Port-Odo.
Even titled Nobles are aware that it is unwise to pick a fight under a Templar’s gaze as their testimony is above reproach and they are so united that a single Semplar can easily reach their Temple Master.
If a Master becomes involved without the issue being resolved, then it is but a matter of time before the Exemplar at the King’s side hears of it. And if that isn’t enough, the Grand Masters have access to the Emperor himself.
The Order’s internal structure is entirely unlike that of Nobility as they are all brothers and sisters by oath, no matter their origin. Once the Empire’s laws have been breached under their sight, all that remains is for the offender to repent.
Two men stand atop a roof staring at the Keep two hundred meters away. They are perhaps the only two people in Port-Odo who do not fear the Templars, the Hospitaliers, or the titled Nobles. It isn’t because they’re powerful, although they are, but because they have close to unshakable confidence in their skills.
The first carries such a large longbow across his chest that it’s almost akin to a small ballista. His clothes and gloves are pitch black, his face shrouded under a hood, there are several dozen throwing knives on his belt as well as a short sword.
The second wears almost the same outfit but attached at his waist are a mace, a black edge-less sword, and a dozen wooden balls with runes. The two are waiting in silence for the night to completely engulf Port-Odo before making their move.
They are Shades in direct service of the Emperor yet have not received instructions for weeks on end. There are contingencies in place for these situations but they don’t involve procedures as rigid rules would only hinder the delicate role entrusted to them.
No, these two have been trained since they could speak to act independently towards the overarching goal of increasing the Emperor’s power, whether that means destabilizing ambitious Nobles or helping a devoted believer reach a position of power.
There are few limits to the actions they are allowed to take, the main one being secrecy. They rely on threats, schemes, manipulations, assassinations, anything that cannot be done in the open but is necessary to achieve their purpose.
Were they to be caught with their crimes witnessed, there would be no recourse for them to take apart from taking their own lives. Especially if one or several Templars are involved. It is of paramount importance that the Order remains free of the shadows they cast.
The Empire can lose every Shade but it will fall if the people’s trust in the Templars is shaken because the Order’s duty to gather the Due and maintain the leylines is what keeps the Empire safe from harm.
Secondary to that point is the fact that people’s faith in the Emperor would lessen should his representatives become tainted by the dark deeds that Shades commit.
Thirdly is the fact that Nobility relies on the Order for many things, if titled Nobles began to see Templars as adversaries in their pursuit for power and no longer as teachers and arbitrators of their internal disputes, then that would spell disaster.
Fortunately, there are few who know of the Shades’ existence, fewer who have come into contact with them, and a rare number who are aware they can act against even those who have committed no crime in the Empire.
So long as that remains the situation, their existence and actions will be but a formless shadow that can be casually dismissed. These two men, despite knowing all of this, have little fear of being apprehended during their duties. They’ve prepared an entire month for this night and waited another week for Duchess Edusa to depart.
“Killing her would be much easier.” The brute with the blunt weapons comments.
“I wouldn’t need you if that was the plan.” The archer comments. He reaches over his shoulders to the arrows in his quiver and runs his fingers along the feathers. “I could do it from here.”
“Through those stone walls?” The brute says in surprise. “You got better.”
“No, the target is simply eminently predictable.” The archer shakes his head. “She spends most of her days in her study.”
“The patrol passed so the route is free, is the access point open?” The brute asks, turning to the business at hand.
“Not yet, but it will be by the time we reach it.” The archer responds.
The two jump off the roof into the alley below. They seem to meld in the darkness as they rush towards the tall stone Keep, accelerating to such a speed that their silhouettes would seem to blur to a bystander if there was one.
They encounter not a single guard or patrol as they make their way to the foot of the Keep. The two Shades place their backs to the external wall to observe their surroundings while the archer silently counts the seconds in his head.
He suddenly turns around and jumps five meters upward, the brute imitating him a moment later. They press the tips of their boots and gloves to the stone, arresting their momentum. Yet, they do not fall down but start climbing upward like a spider would on its web.
Not even the slightest golden glow shines out to reveal their presence to the patrol that passes beneath them or to the guards inside who could casually look out a window because the constructs are hidden beneath their gloves and boots.
They soon reach the top of the Keep and climb over the crenelation. They don’t even take a moment to catch their breaths before flashing towards a door and pressing their backs on either side of it.
The brute draws his edge-less sword as he listens to the footsteps climbing the stairs up to the door. The guard opens the door and she steps on the roof without pause, flicking the door back in a habitual manner.
The brute keeps his eyes on her but she does not look to either side and heads towards a fire on the other side to relieve the current guard. The archer swiftly pulls a thin piece of steel that he slips it into the crack between the frame and the door.
He lifts the bar holding the door closed and unlocks it with a slight bump. The two Shades slip into the staircase without making a single sound, carefully closing the door behind themselves.
They rush downstairs, still without making noise. It feels unnatural even to the Shades who are using the construct. There is a big difference between moving stealthily and not even hearing yourself breathe while torches crackle on the walls.
They stop at a secondary door at the bottom of the stairs. The brute sheathes his edge-less sword to pull one of the wooden balls from a hoop in his belt while the archer presses his ear against the wood.
With a concurrent nod, they open the door and slip into a hallway, not bothering to hide. The brute injects flow into the ball while he lowers himself to the stone floor, he waits for the archer’s nod before he makes it roll towards the end of the hallway.
A patrol turns around the corner just as the sphere reaches it. The runes flash and the half-dozen guards drop unconscious with a clinking sound. The two Shades sprint through the hallway, the brute leans down to pick the sphere up as he passes by.
The two leap over the bodies as they turn the corner, crossing the perpendicular hallway. A few doors open behind them but by the time those inside walk out and sound the alarm, they’ve already entered a vestibule.
They find two untitled Nobles inside, a man and a woman in chain-mails who draw spiked maces without hesitating or wasting time speaking warnings or demanding surrender. The walls themselves take a golden hue within moments.
The archer delays the engagement for a few seconds by pulling two throwing knives while the brute reaches down to one of the runic balls, seizing it in his palm but not withdrawing it.
The wooden ball flashes golden with such intensity that it disintegrates. Unfortunately for the two Nobles named Henry and Margaret, the walls immediately lose their energy and they find themselves without support to face these two enemies.
They don’t wait for Countess Odo to arrive, they don’t even exchange a glance before charging. Yet, they barely make it two meters before the brute and the archer propel two golden cubes at their chests.
They try to dodge but the constructs seem locked onto them and follow. The kinetic constructs hit their chain-mails and trigger with a crack. Margaret drops first while Henry staggers back before losing consciousness.
The golden cubes reverse course into the brute and archer’s hands to be dismantled. They used excess energy to ensure that these two’s defenses would be overwhelmed in one go.
They step up to the door and open it, finding Countess Grace Odo armed with a sword brimming with flow but wearing a clear white and blue tabard with no armor or mail underneath. In her left hand is a construct shaped like a shield that has yet to be activated.
“How did you…” She starts.
“We were passing by, this is merely a casual visit.” The brute interrupts her, further attracting her attention by drawing his edge-less sword.
The archer remains silent as he pulls his bow, grabs an arrow with a weighted round head from his quiver, and nocks it in one blurry movement. A moment later, he draws the string and releases it in a flawless demonstration of archery.
The projectile hits the young Countess in the stomach before her eyes even turn to the archer, much less thinks to raise the construct she put together in a rush. Her knees hit the carpet, she lets out an outraged cry.
The brute flashes forth towards her, determined to end it before this becomes a contest of access to flow. Yet, Grace Odo reacts faster, and more fiercely, than they calculated as she pushes past the pain to swing her sword, aiming to split him in twain with what the brute thinks is an armor-piercing construct.
Still, it is far from enough to overwhelm the brute’s enhanced senses. He slashes out with his sword, hitting the flat of the Countess’ blade which shatters the weapon in countless pieces.
The archer arrives a moment later, placing a throwing knife on the woman’s throat. No matter how courageous a human is, they will pause when their life is so directly threatened.
Grace Odo is no different, and even her perception that these people are here to take her life doesn’t prevent her from freezing for a moment. That moment is taken advantage of by the brute who pulls another wooden ball and activates it, disrupting the constructs in a small area to remove the Countess’ capability to resist for a short time.
“I told you we should have infiltrated the Keep.” The brute complains casually. “The aftermath is going to be noisy.”
“What… did you think, would happen, after killing a Countess?” Grace struggles to ask. “No, it doesn’t, matter. I won’t resist if you let me, write my will.”
“Resist, are you able to?” The brute scoffs. “Nobles, I swear.” He shakes his head.
“I’ll write that, the attack was a remnant of, my family’s corruption, acquaintances of those I imprisoned.” Grace utters dejectedly.
“That’s very nice of you.” The brute chuckles. “We’ll do that.” He sounds mocking but, inside, he is satisfied that the target reached this conclusion on its own with an innocuous push on his part.
“Grace Odo, you have placed the Empire’s stability at risk by revealing something you shouldn’t have.” The archer accuses.
“I, have.” Grace coughs. “They needed to know, but it won’t spread so there’s no need to…”
“No, it will eventually.” The brute interrupts her again in a dismissive tone.
“You, you can’t…” Grace trails off, feeling fear as she realizes that yes, clearly, those two can deal with her friends if they can avoid the revolving irregular patrols in place within the Keep.
“The fact that the information will spread from sources other than you is exactly what saved your life.” The archer pronounces, giving her a lifeline while threatening her by sliding his throwing knife’s blade along her neck. “Yet, you cannot remain free of consequence.”
“I’m sure you understand, we are great admirers of your justice after all.” The brute piles on with a laugh.
The archer throws him a look of warning. The brute closes his mouth in a snap, realizing that he came much too close to the truth by trying to obliquely induce the woman into thinking that they have no respect for what she’s doing.
“This is not Justice!” Grace utters in rage but isn’t angry or suicidal enough to move with her life literally hanging by the thread of a knife’s edge.
The two Shades relax inside, relieved that the young Countess is too straightforward to see through their motives with such a tiny clue buried underneath mocking contempt.
“Nonetheless, we have a task and you need to pay a price for forcing us to deliver this warning.” The archer comments offhandedly.
The brute smacks the side of Grace’s head with his edge-less sword, directly knocking her out without warning just before the disruption construct runs out of energy.
They can both already hear knocks on the vestibule’s door and guard boots approaching so they’re out of time anyway. The archer pulls a piece of parchment from inside his black vest and activates the runes inscribed on it.
The parchment disintegrates in his hands, leading a floating triangular construct that flies into Grace Odo’s throat. The two Shades don’t waste a single moment, they rush towards a balcony but stop before stepping into the torchlight illuminating it.
The archer pulls an entirely wooden arrow from of his quiver and assembles a fire construct on it before shooting it in at a large building in the distance. A moment later, flames shoot out and the guards immediately above their heads on the roof cry out in alarm.
The Shades make use of the short distraction to climb over the stone rail without extinguishing the torches and scale down the wall to leave the halo of light before the guards above notice.
Just as they hit the ground, bells start ringing in the Keep to signify that it’s under attack, followed by the fire bells coming from the city. They nod at each other, satisfied that the timeline of events worked out so well.
The different alarms will induce enough confusion for them to escape the area unhindered. Their goals have been fulfilled, the Hospitaliers haven’t been damaged and warned not to casually ignore a Shade’s instructions. They couldn’t let it go entirely after all, those who know of Shades must also hold a healthy fear towards them.
Grace Odo wakes in her study, feeling a painful lump on the left side of her head and a burning sensation in her throat. There are scraps of parchment piled on the hand holding her broken sword’s handle.
“Countess, are you alright? Lord Henry and Lady Marg… Countess!” An officer cries out as he bursts in to find his Liege collapsed on the floor.
He raises his closed fist over his shoulder to tell the two squads of guards behind to hold their tongues before opening his hand to wave it left and right, instructing them to spread out and secure the room.
The officer kneels and helps the Countess stand. Grace, still fuzzy, tries to speak and say she’s alright but she fails to speak. She gasps as she tries hitting her chest to no avail.
She panics tries to reflexively scream but it only worsens her state as sounds yet refuse to leave her mouth. The officer, seeing her reaction, guides her towards her desk’s chair.
“Marth, call a physician and bring back a warm drink!” He orders.
It takes Grace some time to get a hold of herself and use a healing construct but all it does is fix the burning sensation in her throat. She grasps for a quill, and abruptly plunges it into a vial of ink.
Her indignation at what was done to her renders this woman unable to sit there mutely in defeat. She reaches into a drawer to take a piece of paper that she slaps down on the desk, startling some of the soldiers looking out the windows. She scribbles the words stuck in her throat on the parchment like a vengeance.
‘Justice can never be silenced.‘