1814. Evermor, Oraburis.
Someone was to die that evening.
Rain spattered the vacant streets. Traffic lights swayed and creaked overhead as they changed color, painting the wet pavement green, yellow, and red.
The undulating puddles of rainwater reflected the skyscrapers that loomed into the rainclouds like great black obelisks. Their peaks were shrouded by the foreboding red haze of the dying evening light as it filtered through the rain.
There came a rumble.
It sounded like the muffled thunder that heralded an approaching storm, except it originated from the city’s heart and not the red sky above. Another rumble interrupted the steady murmur of the rain, much louder and more forceful this time. The mass of it reverberated from the sleek surfaces of Evermor’s high-rises as they rocked back and forth ominously.
Citizens flocked to the rain-streaked windows. To their horror, they saw that thick twists of rising smoke now blackened the red sky.
Their city was ablaze.
As the ground continued to quake with increasing severity, the formerly empty streets were teeming with fleeing fear-stricken crowds. Over the mayhem, the sound of heavy-booted footsteps punctuated the air. Uniformed soldiers forced themselves against the flow of panicked masses and made their way to the destruction’s epicenter. The fading light flickered off of the red ring-shaped pins affixed to the right breast of their coats. The Oraburis Military had arrived.
They rounded a street corner.
And stopped dead in their tracks.
Before them, entire blocks had been obliterated and set aflame. The Capitol Building of Oraburis was gone. Where it had once stood, there was now an inferno.
The soldier at the head of the group, a weathered-looking man, stood scrutinizing the devastation. Like many of his rank, the captain had seen many battles, but as he surveyed the wreckage, there was only one event he could remember that seemed even close to comparable.
The captain turned to his men and women, stabbing a finger towards the flaming ruins. “Check for survivors!” he bellowed. “The Sovereign family is still in there!”
Without hesitation, his soldiers braced themselves to scour the rubble that had formerly been their sovereign’s home. The ground shook again. The captain struggled to remain on his feet while his soldiers fell to the ground. His heart hammered in his chest as he watched the debris shift and the smoke contort. Something in the smoke and the flames stirred. Something massive. He stared up into the fire, and a towering serpentine silhouette within stared back.
The soldiers struggled to their feet. They drew their guns and aimed towards whatever lurked in the smoke. The captain could hear hushed exclamations amongst them.
“What the Hell is that thing?”
“A demon? Here?”
Raindrops trickled down the captain’s snarling face as he glowered at the immense creature. Oh yes, it was a demon. Though the flames and smoke obscured the full extent of the demon, it was clearly as large as the entire city block and its neck craned up almost as tall as one of the surrounding skyscrapers.
The captain barely made out the jagged black stripes that coursed across its tawny furred body. Its red mane cascaded from its head and neck, soaked from the rainfall. The wings it used in place of forelegs sifted through the rubble, glossy black claws scraping along the ground. The mouth full of jagged fangs, each one menacingly sharp and larger than a man, exhaled more smoke.
And the eyes.
The blood-red pupils burned like hot coals contrasted against inky black sclerae and glistened with hatred. Its gaze was starved, volatile, and all too sickeningly familiar.
“That’s not just any demon,” the captain replied, hoping that the din concealed the way his voice wavered. “That’s a fucking basilisk.” His hand seemingly reacted on its own, gripping the gun at his side. But he kept his weapon holstered. He knew full well how futile it would be against this behemoth.
He faced his soldiers. Each one stood trembling; feet placed askew as if ready to flee at a second’s notice. The whites of their eyes were shockingly bright as their gazes flicked from the captain, to the beast, and back again.
There was no time to offer reassurances to them. There was only time for action. Meeting their fearful eyes with a stony glare, the man commanded, “All of you! On me! We need to secure the sovereign and his family at all costs!”
Without pausing to gauge their reactions, the man whipped around to face the demon and charged. Above them, the demon abruptly raised its head from the rubble. Its burning pupils watched them from its massive triangular head. The captain swore under his breath.
The demon opened its maw and a ghastly scream pierced the air. Everyone within the vicinity clasped their hands over their ears, their eardrums threatening to burst. Above them, any remaining windows lining the skyscrapers shattered, showering the soldiers below with a torrent of rain and glass. It felt like minutes before the captain could regain his senses and the world stopped spinning. Disoriented, he brushed bits of glass off his shoulders and steadied himself, scouring the smoke. He snarled.
His soldiers were gone. They had run away like cowards.
Not that he blamed them.
The demon remained, its nostrils flared and lit from within. When it saw that the captain still lingered, it exhaled a violent plume of smoke and charged at the man.
The ground quaked.
The captain gasped and lost his footing when the beast approached, landing hard in the street. He covered his head uselessly with his arms while the world shook. All he could feel was heat, just suffocating and skin-melting heat.
But the quaking stilled. Cautiously, and very aware that he hadn’t been killed just yet, the man peeked over his arm. The creature’s wings were firmly planted on the ground at either side of him, and above, close enough that he could see the fur on the creature’s snout sway with every breath it took, was a monstrous head as large as a locomotive engine.
With its two black spiraled horns perched atop its head like a horrific crown and its glowing red pupils on full display, this creature was the epitome of demonkind. Its breath beat down on the man, hot and humid and pungent with the stench of flames. The captain felt all fear leave him. He sighed and unshielded his face, gazing up at his executioner. There were few ways less noble than this to die.
The demon examined the pitiful human kneeling before it, almost as if it was taken aback by his resignation. Then all at once, the demon’s mouth opened wide. Wisps of flame glowed from the back of its throat. The tired captain felt as if he was looking into the pits of Hell itself. He imagined what it would feel like to have the flesh seared from his bones. He shut his eyes.
Instead of searing fire, he felt the wind get sucked from his lungs as something pummeled him to the ground and safely out of the way. He rolled over with a startled gasp and saw the spot he formerly knelt was now scorched black. The demon had returned its attention to sifting through the remains of the Capitol. The captain turned to regard his savior.
A much younger man stood over him. A trickle of blood spilled from his jet-black hair and down his narrow soot-coated face. One of his hands smothered some unseen wound under his dark coat adorned with the Wargrave family’s red regalia. Yet despite his injuries and his pained stance, the man’s youthful silver eyes glimmered with unfiltered hatred. Haloed by glowing floating embers was the sovereign’s son, Keenan Wargrave.
The captain shuffled urgently to his feet, exclaiming, “The Sovereign Heir! Sir! You’re alive!”
Around them, reinforcements had arrived and began to gather around the heir in disbelief.
“What about the Lord Sovereign and his wife...?” the captain continued to stammer.
Wargrave turned to the captain. Despite his condition, the heir’s voice was silken. “My mother and father are dead. This demon murdered them.”
The captain’s heart sank. He shook his head abruptly to regain his composure. He hadn’t completely failed yet. He stepped toward the young heir. “Sir, we need to get you out of here before th—”
Wargrave turned his pale eyes to the captain, still grasping at the wound under his coat. “Listen to me, Captain. You served my father well in the war against Hedera, but I am your sovereign now and you will obey my command. Am I clear?”
The heir’s voice had a gentle timbre but the underlying authority in his tone was unmistakable.
The captain’s brows furrowed. “I... Y-yes, Sir,” he responded haltingly.
Wargrave gestured toward the demon behind them. “Fall back! Ensure all civilians are accounted for, and you all need to leave this damned city with them. This demon is only after me.”
The captain scowled, his internal struggle readable on his face. “Sir, we can’t leave y—”
Wargrave’s coat whipped up the smoke around them as he turned on his heels to march up to the captain. His snarling face was mere inches from the captain’s own. Looking almost like a demon himself, Wargrave hissed, “Don’t question my authority again, Captain. That is an order from your sovereign. Now. Get the Hell out of here.”
The weathered man backed away defeatedly. He turned to his reinforcements and with a shaking voice, he repeated Wargrave’s orders to them. The captain watched his fleeing soldiers and the rampaging creature as it began to tear into more buildings. He cast one last uncertain glance at the new sovereign. There would be no way Wargrave could come out of this skirmish alive. Both men were well aware of that fact as many years ago, they had witnessed a basilisk tear apart entire cities much like Evermor. The captain knew how grief and loss could cloud a person’s judgment. But there was no grief in those silver eyes.
The captain bowed his head. “Forgive me,” he whispered. He left the sovereign to his grudge.
Wargrave watched his soldiers run for safety. He caught sight of the Oraburis flag that once proudly adorned his home; black with the broken red ring in the center. Now it laid tattered in the dirt with flames licking at its edges hungrily. Eyes narrowed, he slowly returned his attention to the draconic demon digging around in the smoldering carcass of his family’s home. He stepped forward.
“Monster!” he screamed, his throat raw from the smoke.
The immense creature froze. Wargrave saw its breath quicken and stir the smoke. With deliberate slowness, the demon’s head swiveled around to locate its desired prey. Their eyes met, and Wargrave watched its red pupils constrict to minuscule pinpricks.
Wargrave found himself laughing though he couldn’t determine why. “You missed me!” he cackled up at the monster. “My parents are dead, but you forgot me! Well, here I am! Come finish me off, devil!”
The creature’s lips retracted to brandish rows of fangs backlit by the glow in its throat. Hate burned in its eyes as it stepped forward on one of its wings. Its enormous thumb claw ignited sparks as it dragged across the ground. Wargrave made no attempt to back away from the basilisk. The creature exhaled a plume of smoke at his bravado and advanced no further.
“You’re hesitating,” Wargrave scolded. He tilted his head in wonder. “What? Now that you can look me in the eyes, you can’t bring yourself to do it, can you?”
The demon only stared in silence.
Wargrave scoffed up at it. “Look at you. Finally, your true self on display for all to see. You’ve tried your best to undo everything my father worked to build, and you will die trying.”
With a self-assured smirk, the sovereign took one step closer, his free arm outstretched wide. “So, come on then! Finish me off, monster! Kill me right here! Because if you don’t... If you let me walk away... You will fall tonight, and I will resume my father’s work and tear apart the rest of your demonkind and send them all back to Hell for good! I’ll rejuvenate this dying, Blighted world of monsters in the name of Oraburis! My empire will rise from the ashes of this day! And the rest of Kaulaire will submit to Oraburis to know peace! To have a future!”
The demon responded with a low vibrating growl that reverberated off the buildings that caged the two opponents. Its head craned so far forward that Wargrave could see himself reflected in its loathsome black sclerae. He hardly recognized the crazed man that stared back.
Becoming increasingly erratic with each word, Wargrave continued, “Humankind will once again walk the world alone without fear of demons. My empire will be built upon your black bones! You... And the bones of all your kin! And it will be thanks to you—!”
The demon screamed and lunged forward. Without missing a beat, Wargrave finally retracted his hand from under his coat, brandishing his hidden ceremonial dagger. Its pommel, forged into the shape of a red snake devouring its own tail, was coated in blood, and the blade was glazed with a black oily fluid. Wargrave’s swift motion sent droplets of the fluid splattering across the smoldering ground where they fizzled and evaporated.
Though the handle was slippery with his blood, Wargrave’s grip on the dagger was solid. Brandishing his meager weapon, with his teeth bared and knuckles white, Wargrave let the screaming basilisk come to him.
The demon had made its choice.
And so Wargrave had a promise to keep.