1st Day of 7th Month, 668 I.R.
The afternoon heat was heavy on the city of Setiel, making the green vines curl upon wooden pots. Their grapes glistened in the overwhelming light, the red clusters just peeking from beneath the dark leaves that protected them. Sen Konstantin lifted a cluster in his pale hand, observing its weight, its color. Deciding it was ripe, he used his sharp nails to sever the branch it encumbered.
"How much longer?" came a boy's whine.
Sen turned to see his younger brother fidgeting with the heavy basket, already half-filled with crimson fruit. His blond locks were damp with sweat, his bare shoulders already burned pink; he stared at his elder brother with their mother's impatience, marked in his emerald eyes.
"We've been out here for forever," James whined, "why can't Madre help?"
"She doesn't feel well," Sen replied. "We're old enough to do this without her."
It was James' first time enduring the heat of Kyro's harvest month, for he had reached the end of childhood years and had finally begun to transition into a lankier, adolescent body more suited for the labor. Sen, however, had been harvesting for many years. Though only sixteen himself, the world had seen him as a man long prior, when he had first grown taller than his mother. He had been but a child, yet his arms were strong, and his visage had taken on the hardness of an adult's features.
Those who knew his true age feared him, as no boy should look as he did. The villagers all whispered about him, about his unnatural height and his growth, his chilling eyes and crimson locks—his sharp fangs concealed by a rare smile. They had a word for him, muttered when he turned his back.
"I don't feel well," James said, shuffling his feet in the damp earth. "My head hurts."
Sen pitied the boy's pain. He always did, for his intimidating form housed a gentle soul. He had the look of a man, but the heart of a child—a child who cherished nothing more than the love of his mother, and his brother.
Sen lifted his wide-brimmed hat from own head, placing it firmly upon his brother's.
"Bring your own next time. Understand?"
James tugged on the rims of the straw hat, bending the shadow it cast to hide his blushing face. He was well aware of Sen's aversion to sunlight, to the way it illuminated his white skin almost to transparency; he understood how grateful he should be that his brother would brave that revealing light to ease the boy's discomfort. However, he wasn't good at expressing gratitude, and hid it with embarrassment.
"Your hair looks really red," James muttered, "like the grapes."
Sen did not laugh—it seemed he didn't know how. Yet, his smile seemed laughter enough.
"It is always red."
He placed a hand on the boy's head, pressing the hat more firmly upon his locks. James, recognizing tenderness, touched the hand with one of his own. For a moment, the air was still, the brothers at peace.
They worked for some time longer, filling the basket with fruit ripe enough to burst. Sen turned a blind eye to his brother's occasional snacking, pretending he did not smell the red juice that stained James' lips and fingers. Unfortunately, too soon, something disturbed their tranquil environment. Sen became aware of rustling amongst the vines, low voices in the distance. His muscles tensed.
"What's wrong, Sen?" James asked.
Sen knew not to hesitate.
"Leave the basket and go back to the house."
There was no negotiating with his cool gaze. Though clearly worried, the boy set down the basket.
"Come home soon, OK?"
James disappeared into the crops, the rustling of dry leaves and vines the only sign of his departure. Alone now, Sen could face any force that chose to disturb him.
Storm clouds had begun to gather overhead, beginning to darken the fiery sun. The air about him thickened, the heat of it clinging damply to his skin. Still, he waited there, attentive to the gathering commotion that crept closer, disturbing the crops. The sounds to him conjured images of heavy workers' boots and dragging tools, scraping against the rocky soil. By the time they appeared, Sen was prepared for the unwelcome visitors: a mob of ragged local farmers, with shears and pitchforks as menacing as their stares.
"What do you want?" Sen asked them.
Though they sneered and shouted curses, only one was brace enough to fully come forward.
"We know you're the one who's been murdering our livestock, Creature!"
Sen stared at him, neither acknowledging nor denying his claim. It was true, however—his unnatural hunger often drove him to the sheds of other farmers, where he would take the weakest animal to satisfy his bloodlust. When he was younger, it was easy to hide these deeds, for small animals could sate him; unfortunately, recent months had increased his appetite, and cattle could not be killed discreetly.
The men took his silence as confession, and bellowed curses at him anew. The sky above cackled with lightning, bright streaks like cracks in the sky.
"We know you've been doing it. We've always known, and we were going to turn a blind eye to it—"
"Until now!" another spat.
Sen stood tall against their hatred, feeling only confusion. He did not usually speak to anyone outside his family, yet now felt enough urgency to respond to their outrage.
"Why are you so angry?"
"You killed her!"
The young man stared at his accuser, uncomprehending.
An old farmer with piercing blue eyes came forward, shaking his rusty tool at the much-taller creature.
"You killed the Priest's daughter," he said. "The whole village found her in the middle of the square, blood everywhere. You're the only one capable of such a monstrous act; it's about time you had consequences for your actions!"
"You can't hide behind your mother anymore!"
Sen could only stare at them, wounded by their words. He had done some questionable things in life, but he had never killed another human being. The very thought of it sickened him, for his loved his human mother, and his brother—to kill anyone was the same as killing them.
"I didn't," he said, sincerity in his soft voice.
They didn't hear him. They continued to curse and spit at him, shouting, braving the distance between them with their weapons extended.
"We'll show you what we do to monsters in Kyro!"
The smell of smoke overwhelmed Sen's senses. He turned to see their small home, standing as it had for years atop that hill, engulfed in flames.
He forgot the aggressors. He ran faster than any of them through the fields, the grape vines scratching his skin as he pushed through them, their crimson fruit crushed beneath his feet. Sen rushed to his home, which was turning to ash before his eyes.
He kicked open the charred door before it could collapse. Overwhelmed by black smoke, he called into burning home.
The flames cackled in reply, snapping another plank.
He ripped through a burning wall, into the room he and Tasha had always shared. There, he saw what he so feared—his mother pinned beneath a thick beam, blood pouring from her side. The stench of it overcame his nose, though he tried to breathe through it, focusing on anything, anything else.
She was weak. Her healthy skin was now pale, almost as white as his own. Flames licked at her golden locks as she reached for him, her fingers trembling.
He knelt before her, taking her shaking hand. It felt so cold against his skin, when it was usually so warm.
"I'll get you out," he said. "Stay still. I can move the beam."
Tasha shook her head, hiding her tears in tightly closed lids.
"I won't make it," she whispered.
He did not usually speak so intensely, or raise his voice for any reason. Yet, he was now overcome by powerlessness. Though he knew anger could not win against burning walls, he was possessed by it—for the first time, he could feel it swelling inside him, hollowing what was within.
The woman only smiled at him, as she always had. She pulled her shaking hand from his grip, reaching further to touch his cool cheek.
"Sen, take care of your brother," she said. "Promise me."
He couldn't say anything, afraid to confirm her dying wish. If he did, he would lose her. He would lose her.
"Stay still, Mother," he said, pleading.
It was too late. As the fire raged about them, he could see it reflected less in her gray eyes, which grew ever darker. Soon, her hand began to slip from his face, though he held it there. Her touch became ice. All of her fell limp, like a puppet cut from its strings.
Sen wanted to cry. He tried so hard, but found no tears could form in his eyes. They all dried up with the heat of the fire, and his own burning anger. When the ceiling cracked above, he was forced to leave her there, where her body would be turned to ashes.
He forced his way through the rest of the house, slamming his way through doors as he screamed, and screamed.
The anger hardened his soft voice, making it deeper, turning it into something it had never been.
Through a window framed with broken glass, he saw three men running down the hill, holding torches in their hands. Their raucous rejoicing made him still, chilling his rage to something far more dangerous. His only desire was to rip them apart.
Sen pursued the men, abandoning a crumbling home.
He followed them deeper into the village, where thunder and rain assaulted straw roofs. The lightning cast shadows in which he could hide, only the crimson of his hair apparent in the blackness. There, the men congregated in a small alley, dumping their torches into deep puddle of water.
"Bet that's the last we hear of that freak," one muttered.
"Better him than my daughter."
They laughed with relief, clapping each other on the back as if telling some grand joke. Each smile deepened Sen's hatred, sharpening his lethal gaze. He could feel his sharp nails grating against each other, still sticky with the red of grape juice.
When the last torch was out, the sky was dark. The rain poured down, pelting the ground like stones. It was loud, loud enough to cover screams.
The men had no chance to fight. His claws severed their throats, ripped bones from their joints, mutilated them until they were less men than gore upon the ground. Yet Sen was not satisfied. Two lay dead at his feet, one still breathing, unable to choke out a plea for mercy. His blood smelled strongest to Sen, still pouring fresh with every beat of his heart.
Sen took hold of him, sinking his fangs deep into his neck. From him, he drank. He drank his sustenance, that scarlet nectar, until its vessel grew cold and still. And then, he was finished with him. The corpse fell to the ground, as lifeless as Tasha had been. Lifeless.
The demon stared at his hands, watching the rain try to wash away the crimson stains. Each drop seemed only to force them deeper into his skin, forever marking him for what he was. Only the ash fell away.
He fell to his knees amongst the carnage, staring at the ruined cobblestones. The water trickled over his face, slicking his red hair down his neck and shoulders—as red as the bodies all around him. The only color to him.
Sen wanted to be dead. His heart was empty, for his mother and brother were not there. They would never be there, never again; he would never be whole.
Stillness was his only respite. The world could go on around him, for his own life had stopped. All he could taste was that sweet nectar in his mouth, stolen from a human life.
He was not allowed his stillness. Suddenly, there was a hand upon his shoulder—a fatherly touch, something he had never known.
"You are quite the killer, young man."
Sen barely turned, his dulled eyes observing a stout man's bearded face and his calculating eyes. His smile was more soothing than a thousand lies.
"I have a job for you," said the man, offering him his hand. "Come with me, and you will never again know pain."
Though his thoughts were slow, Sen understood. He understood that he could not go back to the vineyard, or face the charred remains of his home. This man's offer was his only choice.
In silence, Sen took his hand, leaving his feelings behind.
King Asyrias held his head as he read by candlelight, finding it pained him more than usual. The beady eyes of Raphael's hunting trophies stared at him all at once, adding to his discomfort.
He hated his study, but he had nowhere else to read. Reade and Reginald were a plague upon the Council room, and Madeleine would harass him endlessly if he set foot in any of the servants' quarters. His own room was comfortable, but unbearable—he could not stand to be there for more than resting. During waking hours, he felt nothing but the void of Nasaria's absence, which haunted that space. He saw her upon the rumpled bed sheets, sitting by the vanity, gazing out the window. Her memory could give him nothing but grief.
Even so, the thought of her reminded him of their youngest child. With her death, the Queen had left behind a beautiful baby girl: Siria Aria Xavier. She was a miracle. The first Princess since Fabian's Aurora, she had her father's black hair and her mother's white skin, soft as snow. Her lips had color all their own, red as roses, making her smiles beautiful to behold. Yet, she gave her father some pain as well—for her blue eyes were sightless, blind since the day she was born.
Her disability was disheartening. However, her sweetness had always made up for it. He found he enjoyed leading her by the hand through the halls, helping her up the steps and making sure the servants knew how to give her dinner. Her sightlessness had brought them closer, allowing him to see past her mother's death and appreciate her just as she was born.
The Princess was an enigma to him, at times. Though still very young, she had wise words for people. It also seemed Siria could understand people's intentions even when they went unspoken. If people were gentle, she stayed close to them; if they were not, even if they pretended they were, she would shriek until these people were safely away from her.
There was a black mark upon her arm that gave her father some concern: though abstract, it seemed almost to be a rose wrapped about a spike. The way it was shaped reminded the King of the nymphs' markings, almost concealed by the scales Jaska had given them. Siria had had this marking since her birth, and it did not change with time. Asyrias couldn't help but wonder if this was some sort of omen, some sign that the nymphs lingered in his life—it remained a mystery.
The King returned to his reading, trying to distract himself from his wandering thoughts. The candlelight flickered, casting strange shadows over the words. He ignored his uneasiness. Asyrias lit another candle, attempting to ward away the darkness.
A sudden laughter echoed in the hall outside the King's Study, making him tense. It was a woman's laughter, unmistakably, coming from the direction of Siria's room. He had cause for alarm—Twyla, her usual caretaker, had been gone from the castle for months, traveling with her twins to the Academy in Pandore. No one should have been in Siria's chambers.
He leapt up, slamming down the book to rush to his daughter's room. As he neared it, he could feel his blood beginning to burn, the Dragons of the mosaics staring down at him with a more conquering gaze. His alarm became panic, as he began to sense malicious shadows in the halls.
The King was not the first to arrive at her chambers. Another was leaving them, a woman covered by a thin, scaly gown—her elegant hand closing the great door behind her. Her perfect shape, her inhumanly sapphire eyes, had once haunted his dreams.
The Dragon of lust stood before him in her human form, a victorious smile upon her deceptively beautiful face. She approached him with her insolent gaze, daring to reach her hand to his face.
"What did you do?" he snarled, knocking it away.
"Your daughter and I made a little deal," she purred, trailing her fingers down his chest. "You shouldn't have been so protective of her. The child hardly knows what it is she wants."
Horror drained the color from his face. He slammed Sirena into a stone wall before opening the Princess' door, expecting something terrible—and seeing something far worse.
His young daughter sat upon her bed trembling, her skin paler than it had ever been. She clutched her silken sheets as blood drained from her eyes, spilling down her cheeks thicker than tears. Her innocent smile was made terrible by the blood that seeped into her gown.
Her soft voice was the same as it had always been, so sweet and pure.
"Papa…I can see you now…"
The King could only stare at his daughter, mortified by her mistake. Nothing could be done now. Asyrias turned to see the Dragon had vanished—her laughter lingered, echoing forever in the halls of that cold castle.