"The world we are currently living in has dangers beyond belief. Demons and humans have been at war as long as our history has been recorded. The evil Prince Vandel and his royal mother Victoria rule over the dark kingdom of the demons in the west, and the Bone King sends a constant stream of monsters to our kingdom from the east. Yes, the world is dangerous, but here in Alteria, we are like the sun in a blackened sky...uuugh, Ridley, can I stop reading now? This history book is making me depressed."
Princess Annette sighed, tossing the heavy book to the side. She flopped onto her back, staring up into the leaves of the large oak tree that stretched into the sky above us.
I shook my head. "I'm sorry, Princess, but you need to keep up with your studies."
"You're not my tutor, Ridley." She let out a snort, running a hand through her thick brown curls. "You don't have to put up with this."
I bowed my head immediately. "But I am your knight, Princess. It's my duty to make sure no harm comes to you. It's almost haunting season when the demons act up most. We can't risk you being alone."
Annette rolled over onto her side, staring up at me through dark lashes. "It must be hard," she said suddenly.
I arched a brow, confused to what she meant.
She shook her head, elaborating. "You must have heard the way people talk about you, Ridley. You've only just been knighted and already people see you as the hero who will save us all."
I bowed my head again, almost a little too quickly. "Your Highness, you flatter me too much."
"You have so many expectations on you. And instead of achieving them, you're stuck guarding little old me instead."
"Please don't worry yourself, Princess. My only duty is to serve the kingdom. As long as I can be of service to you and the royal family, I will be happy."
"Uuuuugh, Ridley," Annette groaned, burrying her face in her hands. "You're too nice, you're too perfect. It's your one flaw."
"There you two are," a third voice called.
We turned to see Percival making his way across the field towards us. He grinned, plopping himself down right next to the princess.
Annette smiled at him, sitting up slowly. "Sir Percival, how nice of you to join us."
Percival's gaze flickered to the book that had been carelessly tossed aside. "I see a lot of studying has been going on."
I nodded, trying not to let the frustration of how lightly Annette took her studies show in my voice. "Well, I was to help her—"
Percival abruptly leaned forward, ruffling my hair. "You need to lighten up, Ridley. Seriously, we're not in training anymore. You don't have to be the perfect white knight every second of the day. You can relax."
"On the contrary. If anything, I want to make sure that I do my best so-"
I was cut off for the third time that day as Percival turned to Annette. "I'm surprised your father is making you study. It's a big day for you, isn't it?"
Annette giggled. "I suppose you could say that."
Percival chuckled in return. "It's not every day your little sister gets married. Is it weird having her get hitched before you?"
The princess shrugged. "The Prince of Bevery was smitten with her ever since he came to visit. It's a perfect match. Bevery is a small country, but it will be a good trading partner. Father would have never allowed it if she was the crown princess like me." She turned to me suddenly, batting her eyelashes. "Are you curious what I'll be wearing to the wedding, Ridley?"
The answer, not particularly. But of course, I obviously couldn't tell her that.
I offered her a tight smile instead. "I'm sure it will be perfectly lovely, Princess."
"The wedding will be fun." Annette smiled playfully, tearing up a handful of grass and chucking it at me. "Maybe you'll finally loosen up a bit."
"It will be dangerous. This would be a perfect time for the demons to attack."
Percival gave me a light shove, rolling his eyes. "Damn, Ridley, stop worrying about it. Everything will be fine."
Percival and I stood on one side of the massive mahogany door leading into the cathedral. There were two more knights on the other side, all four of us prepared if something went wrong during the wedding.
The cathedral was beautifully decorated. Chains of flowers hung from the ceiling, jeweled roses placed in practically every corner. The nobles were already seated, waiting for the ceremony to begin in heated anticipation. Despite the lovely decorations around us, Percival's gaze remained intently focused on Annette's neckline.
I glanced at him, mouth drawing into a frown. "You shouldn't stare at her like that. It's impolite."
Percival only laughed, rolling his eyes. "She won't notice if I'm discreet."
"Trust me, you're already far past that."
Percival sighed, his mood seeming to shift. "She's really beautiful, isn't she? You're lucky."
I blinked, confused as to what he was talking about. "What do you mean?"
Percival laughed, though there was no real emotion behind it, running his hand along the stubbled line of his jaw. "You're joking, right?"
"No," I replied, shaking my head.
Percival leaned over, giving me a hearty slap on the back. "Ridley, she's totally in love with you."
I stared back at him in disbelief. He must have been joking. She was the crown princess and I was her knight. She had the eyes of every man, prince to pauper, in the kingdom. There was no way she could ever be in love with me.
"That really is funny," I said, forcing a smile, "but we need to be alert. This isn't the time for jokes."
Percival let out a snort of laughter. "You think I'm joking? Ridley, have you seen the way she looks at you? The way she tries to get your attention whenever she's with you? Hell, she specifically requests you to accompany her almost everywhere—"
Now it was Percival's turn to be cut off as a hush fell over the cathedral, the string quartet, resting in a semicircle around the altar, beginning a soft melody. Annette sat at her father's elbow at the front, hands neatly folded in her lap. As the music built to a swell, she glanced over her shoulder, shooting me a bright smile.
Percival nudged me with his elbow. "See," he hissed.
"She's just being nice."
The bride and the groom had begun to make their way down the aisle. Princess Nora, Annette's little sister, looked beautiful, dark hair braided around her head with glimmering strings of pearls weaved through it. More pearls hung from her neck and dripped from her ears, a long, white gown of lace trailing behind her. Her husband to be, Prince Bevery, joined her at her side. He was significantly shorter than the young princess, bright orange hair sticking up every which way around his head. The couple approached the altar, slowly sinking to their knees to take their marriage vows.
It was at that exact moment I noticed the figure standing at the back of the cathedral.
He wore all black and had the slender build of a spider. A large collar made of raven feathers rose up around his neck that glistened purple in the candlelight, paired with an inky velvet cape that cascaded off his shoulders. His face was pale, cheekbones sharp as a blade, pitch-black hair falling into haunting eyes. He had some kind of sickening beauty about him, a type of beauty I'd never wittnessed before.
He turned and our eyes met.
The man didn't look away, holding my gaze. Then his mouth twisted into a cold smile, like he was mocking me. Suddenly, his eyes went completely black, as if his pupils had absorbed the entirety of his eyes. And in that horrible moment, I realized who he was.
"DEMONS," I screamed as loudly as I could. "Everyone get out NOW! The demons are here!"
There was a sudden explosion of shattering glass and instantly—all chaos broke loose.
The nobles shrieked and Princess Nora cried, hiding under the altar as the black-eyed demons swept into the chamber through the shattered stained glass windows. I grabbed for my sword, removing it in one swift motion from its sheath before lunging at the closest demon to me. Percival did the same.
Fighting demons can be quite the tricky business. They're weaker than humans, but far more cunning and harder to kill. We would often have attacks from them now and again, but there hadn't been one this big since I was a child.
I hated demons.
I hated them more than anything in the world.
I lunged forward, impaling the demon I was fighting directly in the heart. The creature toppled over and I quickly moved on to the next. Brows drawing together, I scanned through the commotion for the man I'd seen—the one who could only be the Demon Prince of Darkness himself. Unfortunately, I couldn't seem to find him (which seemed absurd given his overtly gaudy outfit). Another demon lunged at me and I moved quickly to the side, exchanging only a few blows before running it through.
And then suddenly—everything stopped.
The demons simply froze, much to the shock to the humans fighting them. As abruptly as they had first appeared, they slipped back through the window, disappearing into the night like smoke.
Breathing heavily, I ran a hand through my hair, pushing my sweat drenched bangs from my eyes. Around me, nobles began to slowly rise, the sound of one particularly loud woman's sobbing echoing through the cathedral.
Percival made his way towards me, slapping me on the back. "Good thing you spotted those demons when you did or even more people could've been hurt."
"There's no need to thank me," I said, brushing past him. "We should hurry up and help get medical assistance to anyone that needs it."
Percival's mouth drew into a hard line. "Right, yeah..."
That's when a screech sounded from the queen. I spun around, racing accross the chamber to reach the royal family. The queen was in tears, the king's face ashen beside her.
"The princess..." the queen shrieked. "The Crown Princess Annette has been kidnapped by the demons!"
A hush fell over the crowd.
My heart skipped a beat. How stupid had I been? Trying to keep Annette safe was my number one responsibility and I ignored it. Why hadn't I realized that the demons were after something? It should have been obvious it was the princess.
My mouth went dry and I felt like crying, but I knew I couldn't.
Knights don't cry.
The king approached me, resting a large hand on my shoulder. "Sir Ridley, you have only been a knight of my realm for a short time. Yet despite this, you have showed more promise than almost any hero I have known in my lifetime. As my knight, I beseech you...travel to the kingdom of the demons and rescue my daughter from Prince Vandel."
I sunk to one knee, bowing before my king. "You have my word. I will find her and return her safely to you from that monster, Your Majesty."