The Fall of Daem
The Reignor family sat for dinner in the large dining hall of their palace, most of them unaware that it would be their last as a whole. The head of the family, Ach, resembled an eagle with small, observant eyes and a pointed nose like beak. He was pale, with long white hair neatly slicked back in a ponytail. He was dressed in black, his long, bony fingers weighed down by countless jewels, with an ornate pendant around his neck. It was a crucifix outlined with rubies and filled in with vines and diamonds. To his right were his wife Yeva and his youngest son Nicklaus.
To his left were his only daughter Lolita and his older sons Grigore and Santo. Lolita was an identical copy of her mother, with thick, golden brown hair, a small forehead, and calculating hazel eyes that nearly closed when she smiled. All of them shared the same sense of entitlement because Ach was the emperor of the Daem.
Servants silently moved among them, serving new dishes of food and removing the old, refilling the empress’s wine glass, giving Nicklaus soda because he hated drinking water, remembering that Santo was vegan, Grigore only ate was allergic to nuts, and Lolita was on a special diet due to training. The family hardly acknowledged them; Grigore muttered a soft “thank you” as they moved about and Lolita glanced at him as if he was insane.
“The festival is tomorrow,” Yeva beamed, taking a brief sip from her glass. “I took great measures to make sure that everything looked absolutely perfect, Ach. You will be amazed at what the crafters can do when you threaten them. It took several tries just to take the correct shade of blue; not periwinkle, not turquoise, not cerulean, not navy, not sky blue, but blue.”
Ach rolled his eyes. “I’m not surprised, darling. These people are content with mediocre work. They have never had to truly work a day in their lives. It will be good for them.”
Grigore poked at his pasta dish and glanced at Lolita. “Don’t you have a performance coming up?” He sniffed a noodle, made a wrinkled face, and twisted his wine glass between his fingers. A servant approached him and whispered in his ear, and he shook his head. The servant moved away and he drank the blood red wine. “What will you be doing this time?”
With a sigh, she ate a piece of grilled chicken and thought of how to explain. “Well, they moved me to the front, obviously, because Olivia Cordele can’t sing or dance. I think they only put her in front because she was blond. But after I talked to the director, bought him a watch, and threatened to tell father, he offered to get rid of Olivia altogether. I told him it was impractical of course! So—”
“What are you doing?”
She sighed again. “We’re singing and dancing. We do it all the time.”
Santo grimaced and said, “Will you be in those skimpy outfits again? It’s unfitting for someone of your standing.”
“That’s the life of a performer, Santo. Shut up.”
“Don’t tell your brother to shut up,” the empress chimed in, never removing her eyes from her husband.
The dinner soon ended, and the emperor requested Lolita in his study directly after. She sulked, trying to repress the anxiety that she was somehow in trouble for one of her many bad deeds that her father suddenly discovered. She bit her nails, despite her mother’s protests. “No one will want a bride with ruined finger nails!” Yeva often called. That was the least of her worries. Could it revolve around the bloody nose she had given Titus Huron for calling her a filthy alchemist? She was only half alchemist and she was merely standing up for herself. It most definitely was not for bribing the dance company director—bribes were how they got their way. It was almost second nature. Nicklaus had been bribing for three years now and he was only seven years old. Maybe it revolved around finding a husband already, though she was merely eighteen. Yeva did not marry until she was twenty-five. Was that late? Was she being sent to a finishing school? Maybe she was being praised for something, though that hardly was a reason to see her privately. Maybe he changed his mind and decided Grigore did not deserve to inherit the empire as the first born and Santos was ill-equipped and an asshole so she was suddenly the next in command. Her birthday was not for another two months…
She knocked on the door, and when she heard him call “Come in,” she slid the large mahogany door open, stepped inside, and slid it shut behind her. He sat at his desk, enjoying a cigar, though he put it out at the sight of her and smiled. He was not allowed to smoke. She moved to the chair in front of his desk and he laughed.
“You can get rid of that nervous look. You’re not in any trouble,” he reassured her. She laughed, relaxed a bit, and leaned forward in her chair, suddenly more interested in what he had to say. He had long since removed his crucifix from his neck and it sat on a pile of papers. “Lolita Esmeralda Salvatrice Reignor, my beautiful, smart, and only daughter, you will not like what I have to say. You will fight and protest, but I need you to trust me. First, can I ask you for that much? Your trust?”
“You and your brothers will be leaving the palace tonight—”
“For as long as I can remember, there have been people plotting. There are truly evil people rising to take Daem for all its worth, to strike terror into the hearts of everyone, to wage wars, to kill pointlessly, and for whatever else, I do not know. The royal family is on a list of people in their way—”
“They call themselves the Fiery, a bunch of cowards squirming under the command of Equinox. He has been behind the series of raids and imprisonments. With his control of the army and many more, we will not stand a chance. He will kill as many people as it takes until he gets what he wants.”
“Expose him! What does he want that is so worth—?”
Ach held up a hand to silence her. “I need you to be strong, to bear through it, and to fight against it. Can you do that for me?” She nodded again, realizing that as odd as her father was, this time he was serious. “I want you to wear my crucifix,” he said, resting it around her neck. “Only you wear it. Do not give it to your brothers or anyone else. Do not take it off ever. Okay?” She nodded again. He glanced at the door, stood, and kissed her forehead. “I love you, Lolita. Never forget that, no matter what you hear.”
There was an explosion far off in the palace and he sighed. “Tuck the pendant into your blouse so that none can see it.” She did as she was told. He glanced at the door nervously again, closed his eyes and put his hand to her forehead.
A pain surged through her head at her father’s touch, unlike anything she had ever felt. It gripped her head and a fire erupted through her body that made her stumble away. He looked at her, and she tried to watch him, her vision dancing. More crashes sounded, each growing louder and louder.
The pain worsened, and her body tightened, her nails digging into her palms, her toes curling, her knees growing weaker.
Ach blinked away tears. “I’m sorry for this.”
And that’s when the pain she felt from his touch was nothing compared to the sharpness that rippled through her abdomen. Through her blurry vision, she could see a shining metal sword pierce through her body, her blood running down the blade, and her father’s hand gripping the hilt.
She collapsed, as if her legs weren’t her own and she stared at the footsteps moving towards the door, the bloody sword dangling in her father’s hand. The questions filling her head were overshadowed by her urge to scream and cry. The fire from her father’s touch—what was that? It was rapidly spreading, sinking slowly down her ribs and arms. It felt like her veins were burning. Blood from her abdomen was gathering on the crimson carpet underneath her and it also felt like her skin was pulsing. It was all too much for her to process, and when the doors to the study blew open, she wanted to move. She wanted to get up and run. She wanted to wake up. She wanted to tell her father that if this was some kind of a joke, it was not in the slightest bit funny.
“Ach Vidal, how absolutely splendid to see you.”
Lolita recognized that voice, gritty and low, as Equinox, the general of Daem’s imperial army, and her father’s best friend. Former best friend. It did not make any sense when Equinox was trying to destroy everything she had known. He lived like a king himself.
“Oh, is that young Lolita there? You killed your own daughter? I could have spared her. I could have taken her as my wife—”
“That’s disgusting, Equinox. You are disgusting. And I would tell you to get out of my palace, but you are going to kill me. Then you are going to kill Yeva. Then, you will leave when you find out that the key isn’t here. You will search high and low for this key and you will never find it. And I would rather my daughter die than be sworn to a monster like you.”
There was a silence, followed by a crash. “You’re right. I will kill you. And I am sorry, but Yeva knows too much so she will have to go as well.”
A gunshot rang through Lolita’s ears, and she would have jumped had her body functioned at all. The burning continued to slither down her ribs and down her arms. The bleeding continued. She was fully conscious, but she could not move at all.
Equinox walked the length of the room and he kneed down beside her. He turned her on her back and sighed. “Jesus, he really killed her. It went right through.”
“General, is it clear in here?”
He gave her a second glance. “Yeah, I’m just looking for the key.”
“We need help at the front gate.”
Equinox cursed, stood, and left the room.
The village was quiet once Equinox and his envoys arrived on horseback, guarding a carriage and a large black box on wheels with bars on one end. A mobile prison. The horses were all black stallions only larger than the average horse, striking fear with each step along with the soldiers who rode them, all dressed in black. The only sources of color were Equinox’s red cape and the blood red curtains to the carriage lined with gold. Some of the villagers stood outside and watched the fleet’s arrival while others hid. Mothers covered their children’s eyes and wives hid behind their husbands. All faces were marked with disgust and fear. It was also a dark, moonless night. Accompanied with the carriage was a cold draft that blew out every lantern. The chorus of whimpering from houses grew louder.
In one swift move, Equinox slid from his stallion and scanned the expressions of the villagers, who glowered and cowered, who waited anxiously for him to apologize and say he was in the wrong place, and who prayed that their name would not be the one he called. There had been rumors circulating that only alchemists were being captured this round, or witches, or supporters of the former royal family, or anyone who looked at Equinox the wrong way.
Seine Reels knew one thing for sure: it would not be long before everyone was taken away for one reason or another. He would give his soul before bowing to the Red Priest and he did not care who knew. He stood, eyes scrutinizing the general who walked among them, searching faces for what, no one knew. His wife and son were at home, quiet, hiding in the cellar. Without fail, his eyes connected with Equinox, whose small black beady eyes and large, meaty face contorted into a snare. He did not move as Equinox approached him, and he was not nearly as surprised by this as were the rest of the villagers who watched with panicked eyes.
“Do you have something you would like to say?” Equinox asked with a low voice that nearly growled.
Frowning in thought, Seine shook his head. “It’s nothing that I’m sure you haven’t heard before, general.”
Equinox smirked. “Oh? And what is that?”
“As great as you’d like to boast that you and that fraud in the carriage are, I’m sure you can read my mind,” Seine said, refraining from spitting. “It’s only a matter of time before you come up with a bogus charge to take every single person in here, every person that you think will be a threat to you. If you have so many threats, I don’t understand why you would even bother with this. But you knew all of this, of course, sir.”
Murmurs erupted around them as the men faced off. Equinox grimaced. “Silence, all of you.” He straightened up, glanced to his envoys, and pointed. “This one—”
“Wait,” a voice called from the carriage. It was deep, so low that the ground rumbled beneath them, so low that bodies trembled with fear. All froze, gaping at the carriage as the door swung open and a tall, thin figure in blood red robes climbed out. It was well over seven feet tall with the figure of a skeleton, and its face was hidden by the shadow of his hood though it kept its head low. More murmurs carried through the crowd and any remaining eyes that were once full of hatred turned fearful. The Red Priest moved among them, though anyone that it approached scattered out its way. It towered over Seine, though Seine did not look up; he continued to stare forward. “What is your name?” The figure asked in a soft voice.
“My name is Seine Walter Reels. If you’re all-powerful and all-knowing, then you should’ve known that, am I right?”
“I ought to—” Equinox growled, almost launching at Seine until the priest raised a robe-draped hand.
“You called me a fraud. You believe that my orders are to remove threats from the public? Do you think I do this out of fear?” The deep voice snarled. It turned away and glanced at a small hut that then erupted into flames. The crowd went still. Screams filled the air. “I fear nothing. No one is a threat to me and what I want. Let this be a lesson to all whom doubt me: I remove these people, these animals, because I can. Our home has become filthy with people who do not belong. I am the power of Daem.
“The royal family, Ach Reignor, has allowed Daem to become full of ingrates, of the poor, of the ignorant, of the blind, of the treacherous, of the cowardly, and of the weak. I took it upon myself to restore. I heard the calling from the Angelus. I have seen its power. I have felt its power as it writhes, locked away because Reignor was a too much of a coward to unleash it. Under the direction of the royal family, following in Reignor’s example of consorting with alchemists, this empire has grown weak and pitiful. It came to me because I was strong, because I was willing, and because I am pure. This power, unlike anything this world has ever seen, begs to be released, to be free to purify this wretched universe. Every day it grows hungry for lives to clean. Every day it grows stronger.
“If you think I do this out of fear, you are beyond wrong.” It paused and listened to the screams from inside the burning hut. The villagers flinched, but the Priest merely sighed. “That is the sound of purification. That is the sound of the unworthy, of the weak, and of the filthy being ripped from their bodies, damaged beyond repair. That is the sound of the Angelus growing stronger.”
“That is the sound of people dying because of your delusions—”
“What are you afraid of, Seine? Is it your wife and son dying? Of them being punished for your insolent disbelief? Are you afraid of dying? Did you think I would not know where they are hiding? Of how they cower at this very moment? Of how they pray for you to be okay? And pray to whom? I am the answerer of prayers. I am the very God they plead to.” Two white orbs of light rose from the flames and into the sky. The Priest raised his head to them and they fluttered into his robes. “I am your fears and your hatred and your happiness. I am the nightmare that makes you wake with screams. I am everything from the ground you stand on to the air you breathe. Yet you believe that I cower and move to eliminate threats and that I fear? There is so much for you to learn.” The flames of the hut extinguished themselves instantly and the Priest turned its back. “Take him, but leave his family. Get for whom we came.” With that, the Red Priest climbed back into the carriage and two people on horseback climbed down and moved through the crowd.