Following the general of Machinos to the citadel, Samantha couldn’t help but wonder what could possibly be happening in the prosperous empire. Machinos had everything that every city wanted. They had metal creatures that could bring them anywhere they wanted to go. Its citizens could access a bigger source of information without even leaving the comforts of their own home. Everything was so easy and with just a click of a button. No need to study grand spells to do even the simplest of actions.
It was practically a city without any magic.
Not that she complained but, Samantha couldn’t understand why the people of Machinos hunted down those who were wielders of magic. The citizens seemed nice and they didn’t even seem to be terrified when Beatriz had her brief display of her own powers. Then again, did she really use her powers? It was something Samantha didn’t ask. She never did see Beatriz use more strength other than that of an average human.
“Oh wait, where are my manners?” The general suddenly said. She turned around to bow. “I’m General Kaelyn Azul, general of Machinos.”
Samantha gasped. “Wait, the Kaelyn Azul? One of the Gears of the Machinos Empire!?”
Kaelyn did nothing to deny, shrugging with a small smile. “The one and only.”
Beatriz raised an eyebrow. “Wait, what now?”
Samantha explained to the lady-in-waiting. “Every royal family has their own set of elite guardsmen or guardswomen. For the Machinos family, they have an elite set of guardsmen known as The Gears of Machinos.”
“As expected of a princess,” Kaelyn chuckled. She continued her explanation for her. “The Gears of Machinos were likened to be the city’s most important parts. Without the gears, a machine would not be able to move. It’s sort of like a carriage having no horse to pull it.”
Samantha nodded. “If I’m not mistaken, there should be at least five of you.”
“That was years ago. We’ve expanded to at least twenty. The turnover rate is quite fast for us, you see.”
“Wow, so many!”
“Yes but sometimes, many doesn’t normally equate to being better.”
Beatriz shrugged. “It’s like having too many cooks making a single soup. Having too many makes it into a pile of shit.”
Kaelyn chuckled. “Which probably explains why – you are solo in protecting the sole heir to Sofiene’s throne, no?”
“Yeah, because I’m the best there is!”
“A wise woman once told me: there’s no reason to be cocky if you know you are strong. If you want to look strong, hide your weapon.”
Beatriz snorted in annoyance. “Pshe, whoever that woman is – she gave shitty advice.”
“I met her on one of my travels when Machinos wanted to conquer the Yartengar Mountains. Surprisingly, she didn’t kill me and my soldiers despite her open declaration of her hatred for humans.”
“Wow, that’s new. The Yartengar Mountains actually has someone in it?”
“Yes. I too thought that there was no one there. Turns out, there was someone and something sleeping there. And Machinos’ declaration that Yartengar was to be annexed to their territory didn’t make her too happy.”
Samantha winced. “Do I want to know what happened?”
“She won with pure guerrilla tactics. Do you know what that is, Your Highness?”
“No. I’ve… I’ve never commanded in a war before.”
Kaelyn shrugged with a small smile. “It’s okay, no need to be abashed. Guerilla tactics involve using small squadrons to take down a bigger army. They often times fight in the mountains as they know the terrain much better than the invading soldiers.”
Beatriz scoffed. “I’ve always won everything with brute force. Everyone I faced usually just turned tail and ran.”
“That’s because they probably know of your legend, Lady Odissea. But if there is someone who doesn’t know and knows that his or her power exceeds yours, what will you do then?”
“That’s easy! I’ll give them a reason to be scared shitless of me!”
Kaelyn, chuckling with amusement, turned to the princess with a raised eyebrow. “Is your lady-in-waiting always this crude?”
Samantha chuckled sheepishly with a shrug. “Well, she never did like taking orders.”
“Ah, that explains a lot.”
“I’m sorry; she already came out like that when she was assigned to me.”
Beatriz snapped. “Hey! I’m still here you know!”
Kaelyn nodded while dismissively waving her hand. “Yes, yes, we know. But, I was asking Her Highness if you knew how your big mouth would sometimes get you into trouble.”
Beatriz bristled at the general’s comment and growled. “I’ll turn you into minced meat and see how cocky you are after!”
Samantha sighed. Trust Beatriz to pick a fight with a general. However, she couldn’t help but be worried about the two boys she had left behind at the slums. But what could she do? It was her plan and if they at least split up, they wouldn’t be sitting ducks. But nonetheless, she couldn’t help but worry. Her mana seemed to have been silent for a few moments. It was something she had discovered while she was in Spinner’s Forest. When Beatriz was in danger, she had an inkling as to where she was and how her condition was. But that’s because Bea’s mana is constantly turbulent, her mind argued with her. Brandon’s mana was borrowed from her. And his signal was supposed to be stronger because of that.
But much to her dismay, she hadn’t felt anything since they split up.
Samantha trudged along, keeping her footsteps slow on purpose to see if Brandon or Daniel would just magically pop up. She kept looking back. Fear and panic filled her. What if the soldiers went back for them? What if they got caught in another raid?
“Which reminds me,” Samantha then turned to the general. “How come soldiers were raiding this area? There are barely any people here.”
Machinos’ general paused for a moment. She stopped dead in her tracks and sighed.
“Are you aware of Machinos’ history?” Kaelyn suddenly asked.
Beatriz shrugged. “Which part? Machinos’ had a pretty colourful history. And when I saw colourful, I mean majority of it being colour red.”
Samantha nodded. “Yes.”
“Then, it shouldn’t be a surprise to you both that the racism towards magic-wielders here in Machinos still exists.”
Kaelyn told the history of the empire to the princess. “The days when Machinos was considered a colony of Militaris, the government demanded that all magic-users were to be slaughtered. Militaris and Machinos, both being predominantly Deusist countries, condemned magic users to be a form of blasphemy against Deus. As a result, it became what people called –”
“—The Second La Purga.” Beatriz filled in. “The first La Purga was when all those who served the Odissea were either tortured, slaughtered, or used as bayonet practice.”
“Yes, and unfortunately, not a single magic user was spared. Even babies who were allegedly magic users were killed in the name of Deus.”
“Actually, not just magic wielders were killed. Even magical creatures were either slaughtered or chased from their homes just because of the fear.”
Samantha shuddered. How could people kill each other like that? She understood if there was war. But to kill and slaughter defenceless babies just because they were under the premise of being a magic-wielder? A part of her was thankful she was born in Sofiene. Sofiene, despite being predominantly Deusist, had acknowledged magic as being part of society. They managed to create laws to protect those who wielded magic and also laws that would protect those who didn’t have any.
How could the world be so cruel?
When she had left Xychosia, she knew it was going to be hard. What Samantha didn’t expect is the gruesome and gory details that hid behind the prosperous empires that stood in Zemlya. Babies being murdered, people being wrongfully accused, people being killed here and there like it was the most normal thing in the world – what kind of world was she living in?
“Here we are!” A cheery voice snapped out of her thoughts.
Samantha looked up and stared in astonishment. The citadel of Machinos was larger than she thought!
The citadel looked nothing like the traditional castles in Xychosia and Sofiene. The citadel was geometric in shape; every corner and every wall appeared to be calculated for. The sunset beams shone and reflected off the metallic walls of the citadel while some of the solar beams were absorbed by dark blue panels that lined the roof. At the four corners of the citadel’s land, there were four Obelisks that stood at the edge of the land.
One obelisk glowed bright red at the south side. It stood in the middle of the entire citadel at the front garden. Samantha saw ancient symbols carved into the obelisk while the painting on the platform of the obelisk seemed to be the silhouette of a bird.
“Wow,” Samantha shook her head. “The castle looks so big up close.”
Kaelyn chuckled. “Yeah, it just doesn’t look much like one of those traditional castles. Here, our architecture is more on the pragmatic side.”
“Yeah, it looks it though.”
“The panels on the wall are what provide the electricity in the citadel.”
“Wow, does every building have one?”
“It’s required. It’s part of the law.”
Suddenly, the princess heard a loud explosion and roaring on the streets. Gunshots shattered the silence and people began to scream in terror. Samantha yelped as Beatriz immediately jumped to her defence with her scythe summoned. Kaelyn scowled and drew her sword at her side, narrowing her eyes.
“It’s another riot. Many of the non-magic wielders have been revolting for the ejection of magic users.” Kaelyn scowled. “I’m gonna have to ask Abi to go with me.”
Beatriz and Samantha exchanged glances. “Abi?”
“She’s another member of the Machinos’ Gears. Captain Cathy will be the one to escort you.”
“Who’s Captain Cathy?”
A small voice squeaked. “Over here!”
Samantha looked down only to realize that Cathy was much smaller than she was. She was around Beatriz’s height but looked more like a child. She had braces and a sweet smile on her face. Her skin reminded Samantha of Brandon; sun-kissed bronze from being exposed to the sun. Captain Cathy had medium length black hair fashioned into a ponytail with a ribbon holding it together.
Like Kaelyn, her armour had the same black, red, and dark grey motif. Instead of a coat, Cathy wore a ruffled off-shoulder black top that split into two tails behind her. She also had a pair of dark red shorts while wearing a pair of black and dark grey striped stockings with a pair of short, slightly heeled black boots.
“Princess, I’ll be escorting you in. Kaelyn had already informed me that you wished to see Prince Hayden.” Cathy bowed with a polite smile. “We’ll head over when you’re ready.”
Samantha nodded. She then turned to Beatriz. “You coming?”
Beatriz rolled her eyes. “Meh, I’d rather help Kaelyn kick some poor unfortunate soul’s ass to the curb. Besides, I’m sure Cathy can keep your ass safe temporarily.”
The princess sighed at Beatriz’s vulgar language, shaking her head. At least that was one way for her to know if that was Beatriz or not. She turned to Cathy and nodded. “I guess we’ll be going?”
Cathy nodded and beckoned her. “Right this way please.”
Upon entering the citadel, Samantha had expected a more grandiose appearance. But instead, the walls were plain white with portraits hanging on the wall. She could hear the echoes of her footsteps bounce against the metal floors and shatter the dead air in the lobby. She saw the main portrait however of the queen printed in black and white instead of the usual colour.
“Why doesn’t the portrait have any colour?” Samantha asked.
Cathy replied. “It’s because the queen is dead.”
“But do you really have to make it black and white?”
“With our technology, the artists don’t have too big a problem.”
The princess nodded. “I suppose.”
Despite not knowing the situation completely in Machinos, she knew that it was a heavy time for the princes of Machinos. Prince Hayden was particularly close to his mother and his brother, Prince Reuben was a little more distant and somewhat estranged. She remembered meeting the two princes before. Prince Hayden was a sweet boy and often times stuck to his mother’s side. But he never did get along with his older brother, Reuben. The older prince would always find away to tease him and pick on him before getting scolded by their mother.
She followed after Cathy as servants made their way through the castle. Samantha’s eyes widened when she saw some of the servants floating off the ground and having nothing but some sort of wand below emitting energy to keep them afloat. Vacuum cleaners ran around by themselves and cleaned the floors and the carpets in every nook and cranny. Samantha gasped as she saw a smaller version of the flying metal bird that she once saw Daniel ride.
“I’m sure there are a lot of things here that may seem weird to you. What you saw back there are called drones,” Cathy explained. “They’re made for reconnaissance and also passing messages to other departments. Drones can be useful especially when getting menial tasks done.”
Samantha nodded. “Saves time passing messages too.”
“And on manpower, people can go do whatever they want and engage themselves in more productive things to do.”
“Oh, I see. But do you send them into like… well, war?”
Cathy shrugged. “It depends on the kind of battle. Personally, I’m a drone user so I do sometimes use it. Best part is, I don’t have to scream at people too much.”
“Yes, less saliva wasted.”
“True besides, more work gets done that way.”
Samantha nodded and began examining Cathy. Underneath the tails of her blouse, she saw a pair of daggers sheathed and crossed. She also spotted a knife holder on the small girl’s left leg. She took a small peek at the gloves on Cathy’s arms to reveal some sort of mechanism hidden in them. Better not to be on the receiving end of that thing, Samantha thought to herself.
The princess looked around, realizing that she had only met two out of the twenty members of the Gears of Machinos. Even though she didn’t feel any mana from Cathy’s figure, she could tell that the small girl was also a fearsome fighter. The stockings on Cathy’s legs moulded against her toned legs and her off-shoulder long sleeved blouse clung onto her lean built arms. It was clear that the small girl’s specialty was more on speed rather than direct confrontation.
“Are all twenty of you here in the citadel though?” Samantha asked as she looked around.
Cathy turned to face her, blinking. “Twenty of who?”
“The Gears. Are all of you here?”
“Well, no actually. Right now, only five of us are here. There’s Kaelyn, myself, Abbi, Gerald, and Miah.”
“Wow, Gerald’s the only guy?”
“No, Miah’s a guy also. It’s short for Jeremiah.”
Samantha knew she was doing nothing but small talk. But it was the best way for her to figure out how to get past or get around the castle without triggering a mess. Although she didn’t know the extent of the abilities of the five, she just knew that they were powerful. After all, they were selected to be Machinos’ Gears.
Her eyes darted around as they began surveying all the halls she had gone through. The portraits of each of the rulers hung on the walls with some of the servants using dusters and vacuum cleaners to clean up the dust from the frames. Cathy suddenly stopped, forcing Samantha to stop in her tracks as well. Samantha’s eyes widened when she suddenly saw a cart bearing a strange gadget with some tea inside along with a plate of crumpets.
“I didn’t know carts could push themselves here.” Samantha gawked. “I’d like to have one of those.”
Cathy giggled. “I know right? Each of them has a scheduler so it basically brings your tea and food on that time.”
“So much better than ordering help around.”
“Yes, it’s so difficult to find good help nowadays.”
Soon, the two girls heard another loud explosion thunder through the hallways. Samantha yelped while Cathy just turned around to check what was going on. Much to the princess of Sofiene’s shock, the servants didn’t even budge or flinch and just continued with their daily work as if nothing had happened.
“I have feeling Abbi had something to do with that,” Cathy laughed. “She was dying to try out some new weapon that Gerald and she picked up from Fusika Village a few days ago.”
Samantha swallowed nervously. “N-New weapon?”
“Well, it’s still a prototype so there’s no telling what could possibly happen.”
“It’s kind of scary when you say it that way. That means it could blow up! And take everything with it!”
“True,” Cathy said before shaking her head. “But I’m pretty sure the scientist of Fusika warned Abbi of the repercussions. The better question is, if she does remember what those repercussions are.”
He didn’t like what was happening.
And most certainly, he didn’t like how Lenard was now currently throwing a tantrum while Brandon was trying to reason with him.
The argument had been going on for a good one hour last time he checked his watch. All he heard was Lenard yowling and screaming at Brandon, blaming him for the death of Luke. It was understandable to be angry about a friend’s death but to completely twist the logic and blame Brandon for it? That’s what he couldn’t understand. And if he remembered Samantha’s story right, she had said that Luke had sacrificed himself for it. It was his choice.
Immature moron, his conscience cruelly mocked. He probably hasn’t gone to war yet, has he?
Probably, Daniel shrugged mentally. He looked at Brandon’s emotionally exhausted expression as Lenard continued to cry and scream as if he were a five year old throwing a tantrum in a store. The agent could have sworn that his ears were bleeding from the sheer volume and if anyone else were here, he was certain someone would have screamed at Lenard to shut up.
“I wouldn’t be screaming and howling like this if you protected him right, Brandon!” Lenard roared. “You failed him, captain!” His voice seethed with venom.
Daniel could only watch Brandon bite his lip and let himself take the beating. His hands clenched tightly into fists until his knuckles paled. He took a deep breath and let his anger subside before he snarled at the whining man. If Brandon was hoping to get a favour out of this guy, it wasn’t worth his dignity.
“You fucking failed him! You failed him! It’s all your fault!” Lenard mocked and jeered with vengeance dripping at every word.
That’s it! I’ve had it!
Something in Daniel snapped. What kind of crazed asshole was Brandon asking a favour from!? He knew that he himself was reckless and crazy but not to the point of demanding help from some self-entitled brat! Without any hesitation, Daniel pulled out his rifle and in one swift pull of the trigger, fired a round and ruptured the speaker into pieces. The speaker crackled and sparked before croaking like a dead frog.
“Annoying brat,” Daniel muttered. “I’ve heard better arguments from three year olds.”
Brandon gawked at the agent. “Daniel, he was our only chance to getting a vehicle!”
“You’re an idiot! You were letting this overgrown man throw a tantrum at you for what? He’s attacking you for a crime you didn’t commit!”
“Daniel, I was responsible for Luke! He was my First Mate!”
“You’re not his mother, Brandon! You couldn’t have protected him forever!”
Brandon narrowed his eyes and grabbed Daniel by the lapels of his shirt, hissing.
“You don’t know how it feels like to kill a brother. Agents – especially sleeper ones – can change their masks faster than pirates use up a pair of socks!”
Daniel, grabbing Brandon’s fists gripping his shirt, glared at the pirate. “I may not have killed a brother. But I’ve seen my brothers being raped before they were slaughtered like animals!”
Seeing Brandon’s paled expression suddenly made Daniel freeze in his tracks. The agent then realized that he had let something slip out of his mouth. Something that nobody was supposed to know! His grip on Brandon’s wrist weakened as Brandon’s arms dropped and hung limply at his sides. The two young men stayed silent for a moment, letting the tension drop.
Daniel mentally berated himself; he shouldn’t have let that slip! It was a memory he had been suppressing for years! He hung his head and clenched his fists tightly. It was the one memory that he wished never came back. The screaming of the people in his village still echoed in his mind. The creatures and demons that plagued and ripped his peaceful family life apart. His body shuddered from the force of his memories flooding back as he stepped back.
“Gah,” Daniel winced and shook his head.
Brandon stared at him, confused. “You alright?”
“I will be. Just give me a moment.”
Daniel didn’t know what to tell Brandon. His memories flooded back and he could have sworn that his palms were suddenly covered with blood. The agent staggered back once more when he suddenly remembered his conversation with Samantha. A bitter chuckle bubbled from his throat. Of course, I was assumed that I could handle this. He thought. Soldiers were trained to handle all sorts of stress.
But nothing could ever prepare a child to see his own family being raped and slaughtered.
“Daniel?” He heard Brandon ask. “You sure you’re okay?”
Daniel snapped out of his daze and nodded stiffly. “Y-yeah, I’m okay.”
They cannot know.
If it was one thing he had learned as an agent, it was to keep himself calm and composed at all costs. One give of emotion could blow his cover. It was the main rule for any agent: no tracks, no traces, and most of all – no emotional attachments. He sighed deeply and shook away the stress for now. Even with his heart pounding from anxiety, Daniel knew that his emotions couldn’t distract him.
“Alright, since Lenard is not gonna help,” Daniel asked with a fold of his arms. “What now, pirate?”
Brandon shook his head. “We’ll have to either steal the vehicle or scam for money and buy the vehicle.”
“Shady but, it should work.”
“Yeah, people are so stuck to their gadgets that they don’t do well in real-life situations.”
“Kinda like how you scammed the other guy.”
“And how Beatriz managed to scam the other guy too. It was kinda obvious that she wasn’t completely human. Especially with that Curse of hers.”
Daniel raised an eyebrow. “A Curse?”
“Apparently. It’s what’s been keeping her alive. Not really into fancy magic stuff.”
“It’s because of her Dark Magic. Dark Magic always has a price to pay in exchange for power.”
Brandon raised an eyebrow. “You know a lot of magic for someone who doesn’t use it.”
“It pays to do some wide data mining.”
“In other words, you’re stalking.”
“Stalking is such an ugly word.”
“It’s called identifying the action.”
Daniel sighed and slung on his rifle, shrugging. “By the way, where’s the money that we won?”
“I still have some of it. 25 gold pieces, I gave Samantha the other 25.”
“Then Beatriz has her own.”
Daniel frowned. He looked towards the main streets of Machinos, watching the other vehicles pass by. How much is a car, Daniel asked himself. Then again, they could have taken public transportation. Daniel shook his head. Public transportation could only get them so far and if they had to scale a mountain, they had no chances of doing so.
“Actually to be honest,” Daniel admitted mildly. “I don’t think we should get a car.”
Brandon raised an eyebrow. “What are you saying?”
“Cars can’t handle the rough terrain of the mountains. And, Samantha and Beatriz will probably just crash the car so it’ll be one of us driving.”
“Sam isn’t that dumb, Daniel.”
“I know. But there is a learning curve and that includes smashing it into walls. Beatriz on the other hand might be too short to reach the pedal.”
“Get her a book then.”
“She might need at least two telephone books of Wu Zong to get her to see past the dashboard.”
Brandon rolled his eyes at him. “Okay, so what do you suggest?”
Daniel offered. “There are two suggestions: one is to buy an airship and the other one is to find a dragon.”
“Dragons don’t exist, Daniel.”
“You’d be surprised. I nearly got eaten by one. And this one, this one had an owner.”
Brandon shook his head disbelievingly. “I really don’t think it’s a dragon. For all you know, it’s just an overgrown lizard.”
“Nope pretty sure it was. You don’t see common house lizards breathing out electricity and drawing its power from the stormy skies or its owner.”
“And if it does exist, where did you see it?”
Daniel opened up a palm-sized gadget. “The Yartengar Mountains. It’s a mountain range that divides Machinos from the other empires. No enemy has gotten in because of the rumours of there being dragons. Well, more like that there is some truth to the rumours about there being dragons.”
Brandon rolled his eyes. “For the umpteenth time, there are no such things as dragons!”
Suddenly, they heard a loud roar. Daniel’s blood froze at the shriek that filled the sky. He looked up only to see that the sky had begun to darken. He heard loud gunshots soon echoed in the air. The agent saw the pirate’s expression visibly pale.
Brandon shook his head. “We better find Samantha. And fast.”
“Yeah, that thunderous shriek and gun shots didn’t sound good.” Daniel added.
The two boys immediately darted out towards the main alleyway heading to the streets. Daniel could have sworn he heard a loud beating of wings. The electrical lines also sparked and hissed to life as one of the wires snapped. Daniel jumped back as it snaked down towards him and nearly whipped him. He slid towards one side as another wire burst with sparks and electricity crackling. There’s no mistake, Daniel thought to himself. She is here!
“So, there are dragons.” Daniel smirked.
The pirate scoffed. “An electrical spark does not prove –”
Before Brandon could say anything, a shadow zipped right above them. Daniel and Brandon took a brief good look. Above them, the fading sunlight glimmered on the creature’s dark cobalt metallic scales. A pair of large leathery wings overshadowed them. Daniel’s eyes widened as he saw a diamond shaped head with a long bladed fin from the snout to the head. He could see a shiny bright blue eye glowing as its scales seemed to glow with a bright blue light beneath it. Its tail swished with two fins helping it zip along.
“Wow,” Daniel whispered. He then turned to Brandon who gawked and stood there, frozen like a statue.
“Brandon?” He called.
The pirate snapped out of his daze and turned to him. “What?”
Daniel then smirked. “Believe me now?”
Brandon scowled and narrowed his eyes. “We shall never speak of this.” His lavender eyes soon widened. “Shit, that dragon might be heading for Sam! Daniel, let’s move!”
A chuckle escaped Daniel’s lips as Brandon stormed off. “Noted, Cap. Noted.”
Samantha soon found herself standing at the door to Machinos’ throne room. Captain Cathy remained in front of her as she saw the petite girl press her hand against the scanner. The princess blinked in surprise; that was some fancy security system. They had four sentinels standing at the door but they didn’t have the stench of the usual soldiers and guards she had encountered. After she heard a few beeps, Samantha then saw Cathy lean towards the door and stretch her eyelids a bit. Much to Samantha’s surprise, a green laser shot out and ran over Cathy’s right eye.
Wow, Samantha blinked in amazement. At least the prince and his brother was well-protected!
Suddenly, she heard a bell ding and a female voice say.
“Captain Cathy Hongshi, identity confirmed. Good afternoon, captain.”
Samantha blinked and turned to Cathy. “You’re from Wu Zong?”
“Oh, no, no. I’m from Nan Zong – the north region of Guo Zong.”
“That’s far from here!”
“Yes but when being relied on to provide food and necessities to my 3 siblings, the place doesn’t matter as long as I can send them money.”
The doors hissed and let out a small amount of steam. The doors slid open and revealed the large throne room before them.
The floors were carpeted with the banners of Machinos suspended from the ceiling. Two lines of twenty sentinels lined up against the long, crimson carpet. The walls were painted black with a large sculpture of Machinos’ Deity standing behind the throne. A dreary and dark demeanour filled the room with the dark walls and the white LED lights shining at the golden throne. Samantha’s eyes widened when she saw someone else sitting on the throne.
Cathy drew her daggers. “You!?”
The young man had curly dark brown hair and a squared jaw. On his face, he had a large scar slashed against his eye and a slightly scruffy look. He entwined his fingers together with his legs casually folded. The young man had a jet black trench coat with the royal pendant of Machinos hanging on his neck. Under the coat, he had a dark grey button-up shirt and a pair of black slacks with black leather loafers. A cruel smirk adorned his lips as he raked his fingers through his curly dark brown hair and sneered.