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Reverse Engineering Evil

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No one knew what was in the chest; only that it was sealed, and to dare approach it, let alone open it, would bring down the full extent of the emperor’s wrath upon them. The imperial guards watched over the chest in their lord’s study as they would any charge, day and night, yet the fear of failure—real or perceived—added the edge they’d been missing, dulled during the long, prosperous peace that had stretched over the Dominion. Their eyes were keen, their senses sharp, and all were denied entrance without their lord’s expressed consent. Even light and shadow seemed rebuked by their vigilant watch, lest a specter take advantage of the in-between.

The chest itself was nothing so spectacular, standing at the center of his desk, all papers, tomes, and scrolls cleared well away from it. Fashioned from the rare ronaan wood, it was dark as coal and smooth as glass, no longer than a foot across and only half that from front to back. It was deep but filled with a downy resting cushion, draped in deep a rich burgundy silk. It was sealed with a lock of iron, a lock of bronze, and lock that could not be seen even with the truest of sights. And it was in this unspectacular, thrice-sealed chest that Rafael’s daughter waited.

When he was not in his study, carefully working to understand the strange magic placed on his child so that he might undo it, Rafael was overseeing the construction of the palace’s newest addition. It was far from the most grandiose room one could find in terms of sheer size, but it was without doubt the most important. Artificers, architects, masons, welders, and glass-workers from every corner of the emperor’s vast domain worked tirelessly to bring his vision to life. They worked their spells and wards into the foundation of the marble and glittering white concrete, into the walls and windows filled with sunlight, until the air was thick and heavy with them. It was a space grayed from the waking world and its fundament, existing neither here nor there, then or there, but only exclusively in the moment.

And with every block laid, it became less of a room, and more the vault of Rafael’s design. But his patience had been thinned, as of late.

“How much longer until we are ready?”

Lisbon, master artificer and foreman of the vault’s construction, lifted his gaze from the blueprints at his station and eyed emperor. “We’re ahead of schedule, my lord. The men are—”

“How much longer?” The irritation was audible.

The foreman frowned, eying the plans before him. Even after pulling what remained of the Dominion’s talent from the gate network in Drakiss, the emperor’s task was monumental—perhaps even impossible. “It will be another fortnight,” he said. “At least.”

Rafael nodded, eyes dark. “Work them hard, but do not exhaust them. I want no mistakes, Lisbon. Not a crack, not a splinter. This must be perfect.”

“I understand.”

“Good,” Rafael intoned. Impatient though he was becoming, he could not afford to overwork the builders. It would only hasten an inevitable failure. Quality took time, and though he may have felt as though he’d borrowed too little, the elder knew time was one thing his kind could afford to be lenient with. “Yes, very good. Keep me apprised of your progress.” Then he left in search of distraction.

Some moons ago, Irene would have served as his diversion for the rest of day. Even when he possessed her by all definitions of the word, he never grew tired of their game of cat and mouse. There was something thrilling about watching her fight with all she was, trying so desperately to convince him—herself—that she didn’t want to be where she belonged. He never grew tired of hunting her down and dragging her back to their home, kicking and screaming, so that he might deliver a swift and righteous punishment for her insolence. But those days were gone now. Tenebre had seen to that. He was left with only his thoughts to occupy him, and many proved more troubling than the reality he faced.

This is her fault, Rafael thought angrily—and then he decided that he would pay his dear Dollya a visit, when time permitted, to vent his anger and hatred for his dear cousin. It had been several months since his last trip to the Umbral underbelly, where the queen’s doppelganger languished in agony. For now, he sought a more wholesome alternative.

“Find Lucia,” he instructed a hand maiden. “Tell her to come find me in the garden.”

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She came with with a crown of wildflowers in her hair, a dazzling rainbow of colors that stand out against the backdrop created by the startling dark locks of hair that cascaded out of her head. For such a young child, Lucia had remarkably thick hair -- a gift bestowed upon her by her mother’s image, after whom she had been modeled. She came running with a sweet sort of savageness to her, even though her clothing was made of fine cotton stitched together with hand woven lace, trimmed in the finest silk. There was just something wild and curiously enchanting about the child, even though most had caught on to the fact that she was a dangerous, bloodthirsty fiend. 

 

“Father?” called the angelic-looking monster -- the tiny terror who haunted the halls of whatever palace or castle her father, Raphael, happened to occupy. “Father! Where are you…” there was laughter in her voice, but also an edge of panic, as if she were on the brink of mad, uncontrollable weeping.

 

It had been so long since she had last been called to his side. Yes, she spent lots and lots of time with him. Nearly every evening was spent in his company, but she had begun to suspect that it was nothing more than a tedious chore to him, a ceremony to keep up appearances -- especially now that her mother was gone again. 

 

Gone away with the devil once more, or so Lucia thought away. 

 

So it was meaningful and important -- oh so very important -- to have him call for her. It made her small heart swell and beat fast and hard, and it made her small limbs feel like they could not move fast enough, even though she could outrun nearly most elders in the court. Though she was just a copy, a humble vessel made of earth and water, she was remarkably made and with many of the same gifts as her mother, speed being chief among them, with curiosity, beauty, and intellect coming close behind. 

 

“Father, I’ve come -- I am here. Where are you?” 

 

She would have bound into his office, save she was stopped by the guards posted before the large double doors. Never in her life had she been denied access to his private chambers, and it was near impossible to hide hurt that spread across her face. It was such a look of despair, such heartrending sadness that those loyal knights nearly toppled in the face of such sweet innocence. But they urged her simply to wait for her father, promising his quick arrival. 

 

“My father will have you all severely punished for this,” she replied, sniffling pathetically behind the back of a small wrist.

 

I believe Delphine, Vonetta, and Fern saw this little girl with Poncho man when the girls went on their excursion to San Francisco.

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Despite the child’s threat, the men remained unmoved from their position before her. The emperor had been explicit in his orders that no one was to enter without his blessing, but more importantly, they feared what might become of Lucia if she dared toy with the chest. Dangerous spells guarded it, they knew. It would be better to follow their lord’s command and risk punishment than risk the child’s life. Damon, the guard to her left, still hadn’t forgotten what happened to another of their group. The man had been curious about the chest’s contents and tapped it with the hilt of his blade—it’d taken them three days to clean what was left of him from the ceiling.

“Apologies, my princess,” the guard to her right, Hector, said. “But you simply cannot enter.”

“The emperor was clear,” Damon added. “No one is to enter his study.”

Hector nodded. “No one.”

It was not a heartbeat later than one of the more seasoned handmaidens, Francesca, happened to see the exchange from further down the hall. She wore a curious expression at first, but then her lips tightened as she approached in a hurried pace. “Princess!” she exclaimed, glaring at the guards. “Your father isn’t here, sweet child. He’s waiting for you in the gardens. Hurry along now, before he loses his patience. It seems he’s in dire need of your company. Go, go!” A mere human, Francesca did not make an attempt to escort the child, knowing her excitement would carry her with speeds that would leave her but a blur to the eye.

“I’d be more careful, if I were you boys,” she murmured to the guards when Lucia was gone, well beyond earshot.

“Pardon?” Damon asked offensively.

Francesca was neither old nor young, but she was unmarried and without children, and so she lived in the palace as opposed to many of their staff. More than half of her third decade had been spent serving the emperor, learning his ways and expectations. “No matter your orders, that is his daughter,” she continued. “If she so much as suggests to her father that you were anything less than perfect gentlemen to her, your lives are forfeit. He will kill you, the both of you, and it will be painful.”

“We simply denied her—”

“It doesn’t matter what you did,” she interrupted. “Should it happen again, be better about it. Above all, she is still a child.”

***

Rafael felt his daughter fast approaching long before he heard, tasted, or smelled her on the air; longer still before he saw her. When she appeared, almost as if out thin air, his name hot on her lips from joyful glee, the downtrodden emperor was nowhere to be found. Rather, it was Rafael as he was known when in the company of his beloved daughter, smiles of fangs and glittering blue eyes, with arms open wide to receive her. Irene had never asked to mother Lucia or Dollya, bless her heart, but it had been a task her cousin had been all too eager to fulfill.

“My darling little girl,” he said against her cheek, showering her with kisses. “How I never grow tired of your love and affection.” It had never been a chore to love Lucia or spend time with her, no matter how poorly such sentiment was expressed. In these trying times, Rafael had come to appreciate his family—what little he had—more than ever before, and Lucia’s unrelenting desire—hunger—to be loved, to be needed, was something the elder vampyre understood with uncanny clarity. And so it was, when he found these times with her, that he felt whole and complete, even as he sacrificed more and more of himself to achieve his ends.

It would appear that I’ve managed to bargain for a bit of free time today,” he said, using the native tongue. “And I can think of no better companion to spend it with than you.” He kept her in his arms, one secured under her, keeping her settled and seated against his side. “Tell me, what have you busied yourself with this day, hm?” he inquired, brushing some of her dark hair from the side of her face. “Hopefully, fashioning your papa a matching crown. Yours is so lovely, I cannot remember a time I was so envious of another living soul.

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Lucia could not understand, she simply could not make sense of it. And as she stood there before the two lumbering knights, Damon and Hector, she could not help but feel her heart sink into the deep and dark pits of despair. And could there be a type of despair more thick and dreadful than that of a child’s? She could not reason with herself that this was an order given, that there may be in fact good reason for it, and that all of it might have nothing to do with her -- not it at all. She was the center of her own universe, a small place she willingly and lovingly shared with the only individual who had ever shown her love, her beloved father. But for far too long she had been forced to share this space with another, and now that she was finally gone, she could not understand why there were any secrets between them. Was she not to become Gabriela’s replacement? Was she not the perfect specimen to groom into becoming the emperor’s true beloved? Romantic and paternal love mixed and mingled for the ancient child, and she could not distinguish beyond the fact that she wanted to be the center of his universe.

 

But there were secrets…

 

Raphael was keeping secrets…

 

Her tender heart, her little girl’s heart, her woman’s heart -- it ached with jealousy and misery as she was turned away from a series of rooms from which she had never been barred entrance. 

 

“Apologies, my princess. But you simply cannot enter,” said the first knight.

 

“The emperor was clear. No one is to enter his study,” continued the second.

 

“No one,” added the first with a nod.

 

“Princess!”

 

The bloody tears in the little girl’s eyes were salvaged by the sudden sound of Francesca’s voice. Lucia turned her crimson gaze upon the handmaiden with pinched, trembling brows and pursed lips on the cusp of a pout. She did not mean to fuss, but her heart had been broken.

 

“Your father isn’t here, sweet child. He’s waiting for you in the gardens. Hurry along now, before he loses his patience. It seems he’s in dire need of your company. Go, go!”

 

The strain in the woman’s voice convinced Lucia that she was telling the truth -- Raphael was indeed in dire need of her company and that alone lifted her spirits enough for her to forget about all of this unpleasantness. She turned on her little bare heel without another word to the knights and seemed to all but vanish into thin air as she moved forward with that uncanny vampyric speed of hers. She sprinted through the halls, nothing more than a passing beam of moonlight moving across the floor as a curtain shifted against a breeze. It was only a matter of moments before she was out among the trees and flowers, and the soft sound of water from the dozen of fountains that littered the gardens of the private, residential courtyard. 

 

She found her father immediately, sitting at the edge of one such fountain -- a large pool of water with a magnificent centerpiece. It was a woman, tastefully nude, carrying a large vase of water that spilled a never ending current of silver water down below, gently shifting the surface upon which a bed of pink and white lotus flowers floated. He made as if to stand but she was in his arms before he could manage it, with her slender, white arms thrown and wrapped around his neck and her face pressed into his shoulder.

 

“My darling little girl. How I never grow tired of your love and affection.”

 

He was kissing her -- his lips were hot and cold butterfly wings across her forehead and cheeks, and they made her giggle uncontrollably. Truly, all sadness that she had suffered through just moments before seemed forgotten as he wrapped his arms around her and made her feel like the most important creature in all the land. So much like Gabriela in her youth, when she had been simple and innocent, and so utterly different in her hunger and commitment to impulse, even though she was no true vampyre. 

 

Did he love her because she was Lucia or because she reminded him so much of Gabriela?

 

“No he hecho nada ¡Estoy tan aburrido! Solo lecciones, y lecciones, y más lecciones. Mi vida es muy aburrida. Pensé que desde que mamá se fue, las cosas serían al menos un poco más emocionantes, pero no ... todos están tristes, molestos, enojados o simplemente guardan secretos.”

“I haven't done anything. I am so bored! Just lessons, and lessons, and more lessons. My life is so dull. I thought ever since mommy went away things would  at least be a little more exciting -- but no... everyone is sad, or upset, or angry, or just keeping secrets."

 

Lucia regarded her father with those ruby-colored eyes of hers, an edge of suspicion in them. He spoke of her crown, but she dismissed the notion -- unwilling to have the subject changed now that she was well situated upon his laps and had her arms wrapped around his neck. There was no where for him to go, and no way for her million questions to be avoided.

 

“¿Qué pasa papi? ¿Qué le pasó a mami? ¿Dónde está ella? ¿A dónde fue? ¿Se la llevó el diablo otra vez?”

“What's going on daddy? What happened to mommy? Where is she, where did she go... Did the devil take her again?”

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“Now, now,” Rafael lectured her teasingly. “What have I told you, my love? People are entitled to their feelings. You cannot scorn them for that. They are people, same as you.” Lucia’s thirst—bottomless and endless as the void—reached the furthest corners of her life. She craved all things, a sentiment her father knew well, yet with more raw and literal sense. Teaching the child to control that which had been without boundaries or authority for so long had been Rafael’s first order of business after her adoption, and without the doubt the most challenging. That’d she managed to come so far in so little time was a testament to her desire to please him, to remain the apple of her father’s eye. “This boredom you feel, it will pass. I promise. There is excitement to be had, and as my princess, it will be yours.”

Looking at her, Rafael saw the suspicion in her ruby eyes, in the way she squeezed him tighter and all but held him captive in her small, childish hands. Though their time together was often formal, their tender moments limited, there were few that understood the elder like his daughter. Lucia’s senses had become keen to her father’s moods and temperament, his cunning and deception. In some ways, she was even brighter than her mother had been at that age. And so, he was not caught off guard when her questioning turned to Irene, nor was his mood dashed against the stones of the fountain upon which they sat. It was a conversation the two were certain to have, albeit somewhat earlier than he’d expected.

“No, the devil has not taken her again,” he replied, though only somewhat certain of his claim. It was well within Irene’s scope to return to Roen and, with Philippe in tow, abscond to some far and unheard of corner of the world. Rafael had given her that leave, if she wished. And yet, reports of the devil still trickled in every now and again, and the tailed fiend seemed quite content stalking the halls of his empty manor, or brooding in the highest peaks of the towers in Patia. Philippe’s death and Irene’s rejection thereafter had changed something in Roen, or so the elder suspected. He’d neither the time, the effort, nor the care to confirm. “Your mother is off visiting…” the lie died on his tongue as he looked at Lucia, seeing a brief flash of Irene across her soft, gentle face. “… I don’t know where she is, my love.”

Rafael sighed. It was a slow, heavy sigh, the one that stripped the glamour of his immortality and revealed his age. The tired lines beneath his eyes and at the edges of them; the creases in his handsome brow; the way his thins lips seemed incapable of smiling, or smirking, forever sunken in a nigh-imperceptible frown. His proud shoulders slumped, and the brightness in his blue eyes faded, slowly at first, until they were dark and deep as the ocean’s depths. “Your mother is gone,” he confessed to Lucia, “and I don’t suspect she will ever return. She wanted to leave, to truly be free of us and all that we represent, and Tenebre has given her that. She is beyond my reach now—beyond all of us. If she ever comes back, it will be of her own accord and no one else’s.”

He adjusted Lucia on his side, holding her just a bit closer. “That is why a great many deal of the people here are sad. Many of them are good people, loving people, that have given your mother everything. Yet, it wasn’t enough.” Looking beyond her, he studied one of the many statues occupying the garden that had been fashioned in Irene’s likeness. They hadn’t done her hair justice – a single curl was too long, another too short, and the entirety of its mass not nearly long enough. “To tell you the truth, I’m not sure anything will ever be enough to give her what she seeks. Her father was like that, and I fear she’s inherited more of his troubles than her mother’s. Perpetual melancholy may simply be her lot in life, and she will forever look for its cure. There is no medicine for that sickness, and with time, it will rot her from the inside out.”

Then he looked to the sky, quietly growing cloudy above them. “I hope it doesn’t come to that.”

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“Your mother is off visiting...I don’t know where she is, my love.”

 

She held the man that she called father in the small circle of her arms, with her nose pointed up to better gauge his expression. Those eyes of hers, far too large for her small face, made her all the more endearing. But it was the color of them, which often caused fear in others that set her apart in ways no other feature ever could. They were not a solid color, a marbleized orb of pooled blood. Instead, they were like raw gems pulled from the earth, uncut but pristine in their color and clarity. Those eyes that stared at him now, drinking in the subtle pain written across his face, they were perfect ruby stones held up to the sun, capturing and reflecting the light inward, deeper and deeper into the bottomless chasm that was both her hunger and her need to love and be loved. 

 

He sighed, and she felt the breath of him against her own chest. It was a heavy thing, the rise and fall of his core, and it made her brows pinch and her small, pursed mouth tremble as if she might cry -- but she didn’t. This was not her sorrow, and it would do away with the weight of his own if she made it about herself. 

 

For him, for her beloved father and the man she was beginning to love more and more, she had to be strong. 

 

“Your mother is gone and I don’t suspect she will ever return. She wanted to leave, to truly be free of us and all that we represent, and Tenebre has given her that. She is beyond my reach now--beyond all of us. If she ever comes back, it will be of her own accord and no one else’s.” 

 

“No one is beyond your reach, Father. You are the Emperor of the Carmine Dominion, your reach is as far and wide as you will it to be. If she is gone, truly gone, it is by your will.” 

 

He adjusted her and she clutched at his shoulders feeling the way his arms tightened around her small form. He held her not as a father would a daughter, but as one needing comfort did of a thing that could provide such comfort. She intended to be that for him, and so she relaxed and pressed into him, with one small hand reaching up to stroke his bearded cheek. Her tiny hand, it barely covered the length of his wide jaw as she stroked him back and forth.

 

“...To tell you the truth, I am not sure anything will ever be enough to give her what she seeks. Her father was like that, and I fear she’s inherited more of his troubles than her mother’s. Perpetual melancholy may simply be her lot in life, and she will forever look for its cure. There is no medicine for that sickness, and with time, it will rot her from the inside out.”

 

“Or maybe she will find the cure in her loneliness. Maybe she was always meant to be alone… We were there when you were not, I saw her when she lived alone in Eden, nothing but a shadow that existed from one night to the other. She was never happy, but she was content -- a being of utter inconsequence.”

 

The girl became still and quiet then. She looked away from her father. 

 

“I will miss her. She never loved me, but back then, back when it was just the four of us -- she looked after us, me, Dollya, and Lucis. She couldn’t love us. She can’t love anything. But she took care of us.” 

 

Silence settled between them, even as rain clouds began to gather above their head. He looked to the sky, and she followed his example. 

 

“Tenebre does nothing for the sake of kindness. If he helped her, it was for a price…”

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